About two weeks ago, I was waiting in a "Seven items or fewer" line at Wegmans in Hunt Valley. The woman in front of me had 18 separate items and a variety of difficulties in finding the money in her purse to pay for them. She was waited on for more than seven minutes. After she was finished paying, I said to the person at the register, "Do you all not discourage people who have so many items from using this line? It really is bad policy."
The woman who took 18 items to the seven-item limit line was still within earshot and said, "Mind your own business. You're from Pikesville, aren't you?" I told her I wasn't talking to her. The cashier smiled, but said nothing. Pikesville, of course, is a part of Baltimore County well known for having a large Jewish population.
What should/can one make of this little drama? How about the following: "Hunt Valley, Maryland, is a hotbed of anti-Semitism"; "Wegmans tolerates religious prejudice in its stores"; and/or "a Jewish man cannot escape vile, anti-Jewish remarks in Baltimore County or Maryland?"
These inferences constitute what some logicians call "hasty generalization," or the taking of an atypical example and depicting it as being representative.
Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist, wrote this week, "In Washington on Saturday, opponents of the health care legislation spit on a black congressman and shouted racial slurs at two others ... [Rep.] Barney Frank ... was taunted because he is gay."
Immediately after this citation of facts, Mr. Herbert interprets them: "At some point, we have to decide as a country that we just can't have this: We can't allow ourselves to remain silent as foaming-at-the-mouth protesters scream the vilest of epithets at members of Congress - epithets that The Times will not allow me to repeat here." He goes on: "... it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters."
This is classic hasty generalization. It is impossible to get thousands of protesters without including some schmucks (to employ a term used by some of my buds in Pikesville, but few of my fellow residents in Cockeysville).
Where else have I seen such despicable human beings? About seven years ago, when Michael Steele was running for lieutenant governor, he was called an "Uncle Tom" by Senate President Mike Miller and was subjected to other periodic public and private racial slurs. In addition, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee illegally obtained Mr. Steele's credit report - the only Republican candidate so targeted that year. In one notorious incident, Oreo cookies were thrown his way during a debate to imply that he wasn't a real African-American.
Two or three prominent Maryland Democrats, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Kweisi Mfume, then-head of the NAACP, spoke out against the racist treatment of Mr. Steele, who is now the chairman of the Republican National Committee. But there was not a word of criticism by any other major political Democratic office-holders in Maryland.
Now, that's not a hasty generalization; it is an accurate statement about Maryland's Democratic Party.
Let me add a bit of context to my above analogy of the religious remark I experienced at Wegmans. I have lived in Maryland for more than 35 years, and this was the first anti-Semitic remark I have ever experienced. The woman at the register probably said nothing because she hadn't been trained to deal with such a remark, and who knows what she should have done, if anything, regardless?
I had and have no right to accuse any large group - Marylanders or Hunt Valley residents or Wegmans employees - of condoning anti-Semitism, per this experience. My experience was atypical.
But the Maryland Democratic Party's quiet countenancing of racism against a Republican African-American? For that limited application, the evidence is pretty clear that the answer is "yes." For general racist accusations against Republicans or tea partiers - sorry, but those remain hasty generalizations.
Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article originally appeared on the blog Red Maryland.