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Opinion Speaking candidly about racism, like Liam Neeson did, is the only way to get past our demons

Charles Lewis is a former editor and reporter at the National Post.

Being honest is a tricky thing these days, as actor Liam Neeson has now undoubtedly learned. He recently spoke about his feelings of rage 40 years ago when he heard that a female friend had been raped.

“I had never felt this feeling before, which was a primal urge to lash out," Mr. Neeson said in a television interview. “I asked her, ‘Did you know the person, was it a man?’ No. ‘Race?’ She said it was a black man.” He then admitted that he went out “deliberately into black areas in the city looking to be set upon,” so that he "could unleash physical violence.”

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Mr. Neeson also added, although that seems to have been lost, that he would have tried to hunt down an Irishman or Scotsman if that was the profile of the rapist. The misguided reaction indicates the rush to judgment of our time and the easy way we condemn.

Related: Liam Neeson’s interview can be a teachable moment around anti-black racism

We needn’t condemn Mr. Neeson for life over a momentary reaction to an inflammatory situation. Forty years ago, Mr. Neeson fell into the trap of stereotyping a collective group because of the crimes of one. And today, he knows this and fully admits the error. In fact, even at the time, he went to see a priest to confess his sins. What he said should not have been an occasion to shame him but to praise him for being honest about the perils of such thinking.

I am about the same age as Mr. Neeson. I grew up in New York. The city I grew up in was infested with crime and racial animus. At the height of this disintegration, around the early 1970s, we saw the phenomenon of what was called white flight, a massive move of white people to the suburbs. The city lost about one million residents to fear of crime. But to be truthful, it was fear of the black man.

It is horrible to say, but it was also the truth. Rewriting history to make people feel good does nothing to reckon with the past.

My neighbourhood was broken into threes: whites (mainly Jewish, Italian and Irish), Puerto Ricans and black people.

There was nothing in the way of racial harmony, even though we lived within stone’s throw of one another and attended the same schools. My little league baseball team had not a single black or Puerto Rican player. I never thought anything of it. Nor did anyone else that I knew.

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But my parents tried to teach me a lesson about the evils of racism. One day there was a fight after junior high school between white and black students. I was angry, and when I got home I referred to the black students as a “bunch of niggers.”

It was one of the only times my father slapped me in the face. And he was right to do so.

But then something happened. Suddenly, my parents were not so tolerant. They began to see black people as welfare bums. They started to believe that crime – certainly violent crime – was basically a black thing. They spoke about black people having babies to get welfare.

Even white people who were not overtly racist generally lived with the assumption that black people were dangerous. Not all, mind you, but I would say most people I knew.

For a while, I drove a cab in Manhattan to make money for school. Most of the drivers I met were white. They always told me never to pick up a black person heading uptown, to Harlem: “You’ll end up robbed, beaten or dead.”

My cousin, though, who was also a part-time cab driver, found this ridiculous. But for a different reason: He said, “Pick them up. They’ll be so grateful you’ll get a huge tip.” So I did – and some customers did tip big.

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Once I stopped discriminating and actually spoke with my black passengers, I gained certain sympathy for what they went through every day. Most of the people I picked up were hardworking and exhausted, and just wanted to get home so they could rest. One woman, whose two sons were fighting in Vietnam, thanked me profusely for stopping. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such shame in my life.

Now, I could tell these stories another way. I could cut out the racial references, but I would be lying. Talking about it now is not in any way an endorsement of the vile views that permeated our lives back then – but rather an admission how easy it is to become terrible.

Liam Neeson is guilty of racially profiling, out of a blind rage, 40 years ago. That does not mean he is a racist today. People can grow, and learn from their mistakes as societal attitudes evolve. Mr. Neeson was being honest, and in that honesty was a sense of outrage at his own past behaviour.

I honour him for spilling his dirty little secret. It’s the only way we are ever going to get past our demons.

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