by Juan Bernal
Before the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation in the 1960s and 70s, many southern states required that voters answer questions meant to show their qualification for voting. White people would get some softball question like “How many eggs in a dozen?”; whereas, blacks would be hit with questions about relativity physics or quantum physics: “Explain the Copenhagen version of quantum phenomena.” Who do you suppose was qualified to vote?
In his latest book for the non-scientific layman, Leonard Mlodinow (See* below) recounts a joke in his discussion of the stereo-typing and categorization of people. As Mlodinow tells it, three gentlemen (a white Catholic, a white Jew, and a poor black man) die and head for the gate of heaven where the Lord will question them to determine their qualifications for entry.
(I’m not sure why Mlodinow puts the Lord performing the function normally assigned to St. Peter; maybe it has something to do with Leonard’s Jewish background.)
What follows is paraphrase of the joke. I have altered Mlodinow’s words slightly.
At any rate, the first man, a white Catholic, comes to the gate and stands before the Lord who asks that he state his qualifications for entry into heaven. The Catholic answers: “Lord, I followed all the rules of the church, regularly attended mass, and was kind to my fellow humans, even if others were biased against me because of my Catholicism.” The Lord says fine, but before I let you enter you must correctly spell a word. “What word, Lord?” the Catholic asks. “God”, says the Lord. The Catholic easily spells G-O-D and is granted entry.
Next, the Jewish gentleman comes to the gate and stands before the Lord who asks this fellow the same question: what are his qualifications for entry into heaven. The Jewish man answers: “Lord, I followed your commandments, studied and revered the Torah, and treated all people as I wanted them to treat me, despite all the anti-Semitism directed against me.” The Lord says fine, but before I let you enter you must correctly spell a word. “What word, Lord?” the Jew asks. The word is “God”, says the Lord. The Jew easily spells G-O-D and is granted entry.
Finally, the poor old black man, comes to the gate and stands before the Lord who asks the same question as with the other two. The black man answers: “Lord, I despite all the racist discrimination that I had to endure I never became bitter but always tried to follow your teaching, and I always tried to treat every one kindly and fairly, regardless of the color of their skin.” The Lord smiles and says that’s good, but before I let you enter you must correctly spell a word. “What word, Lord?” the black man asks. “Czechoslovokia,” says the Lord. …
(Some things never change!)
(No people. This is not a racist joke!)
An Elaboration on this instructive joke.
According to an anonymous reviewer of Mlodinow’s book, the joke was read to a conference of community college philosophy instructors (Western States, including California), 650 of whom were given a questionnaire to get their interpretation of the joke. (I have not been able to confirm that this survey really did take place, but simply describe what was reported to me.)
The respondents distributed as follows:
32% correctly read the joke as commentary on the universality of racial prejudice and hypocrisy (even the Lord..)
16% correctly noted that the joke said something about our ideas of justice and fair play
12% did not even see the point of the joke at all, asking lame questions like, “Why Czechoslovakia?”
(These are philosophy instructors, you must understand their limitations.)
8% were bothered by the story’s placing God and not St. Peter as heaven’s gate keeper, and could not get past that bit of incongruity to answer other questions.
10% were Christian theists who objected strongly to the way the joke characterized the Lord as being unjust to the black man. Why, God would never do that!
12% did not understand why Mlodinow would include the joke in a chapter on our unconscious stereo-typing and categorization.
5% were offended by what they mistook as a racist joke.
The remaining 5% were black philosophy instructors who just laughed, asked “So what’s new?” and went about their conference business.
* Subliminal, How your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Mlodinow is a physicist at Caltech who co-authored The Grand Design, with Stephen Hawkin; and had an earlier, very entertaining book, The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Rules our Lives