Jan. 5, 2009 -- In his new book, ABC News anchor John Quinones describes racism in action as he reflects on his own childhood.
Read an excerpt from "Heroes Among Us" below.
On a Saturday morning, at a bakery near Waco, Texas, I found a display of bigotry as fresh as the coffee and pastries people stopped in to buy.
A young Muslim woman dressed in a traditional headscarf ordered a pastry from the man behind the counter.
"You'll have to leave," he told her.
"What do you mean?" the woman asked politely.
"We don't serve camel jockeys in here," he said.
Several customers milled about the store, looking uncomfortable, trying not to pay attention. I was watching all this on TV monitors in a room in the back of the bakery. Both the Muslim woman and the man behind the counter were actors and hidden cameras were rolling. It was all part of the TV show I host for ABC News called What Would You Do?
"You won't serve me?" asked the woman, seemingly dumbfounded.
"How do I know you don't have a bomb in that bag?" the man behind the counter retorted.
"This is outrageous," said the woman playing the part of a Muslim.
I watched in astonishment what happened next. An older man approached and gave our man behind the counter an emphatic thumbs-up. "Good job," he said. "I like the way you dealt with her." Then he took his bag of donuts and left.
It was a scene I was ashamed to have witnessed.
Moments later, in the parking lot with a camera crew in tow, I caught up with this man as he climbed into his pickup truck.
"Excuse me, sir," I said. "My name is John Quiñones."
But before I could ask him a single question, he jumped out of his truck, jabbed his finger in my face and snapped: "You're not an American."
That hit me hard.
I'm a native, sixth-generation American. But it's true I grew up in segregation, in the barrio. I'd known where "my place" was, and that was on the west side of San Antonio. The north side of the city, which was mostly white, was pretty much forbidden to someone who looked like me. These were the unspoken rules of my childhood, and now I was hearing them loud and clear.
After a short break, we reset the scene.
On cue, our Muslim actress approached the counter and asked to buy a sweet roll. A gain, the actor playing the bigoted man behind the counter refused to serve her.
"How do I know you're not a terrorist?" he taunted her. "You're dressed like one."
"Excuse me?" said the actress playing our Muslim.
"Look, take your jihad back out to the parking lot. I've got to protect my customers," the clerk said.
This time we noticed two young women customers -- one of whom later turned out to be Muslim, although her typical Texas clothing gave no indication of this -- who stopped in their tracks. They were staring, their mouths wide open, incredulous. Finally, one of them mustered the courage to speak up.
"You're really offensive," she practically shouted at the clerk.
Her friend joined in: "You're disgusting."
They stood their ground and demanded to speak to the clerk's manager. Even though they'd never met the woman who was being abused, her cause was theirs.
Watching these women stand up for what they believed in made me proud to live in a country where people are willing to risk getting into a fight, or worse, to defend a stranger being bullied. The millions of viewers who tune in to watch WhatWould You Do? each week get a thrill from seeing everyday heroes like these women in action. And, as the anchor of the show, I get the same thrill.
The confrontation in Waco wouldn't be my last encounter with intolerance and bigotry.
A year later, at a delicatessen in New Jersey, I myself jumped into the fray. As customers looked on I pretended to be a Mexican daylaborer and, speaking in broken English, tried to order a sandwich. Again, the man behind the counter was an actor.
"Speak English or take your pesos down the road," he snapped.
"Por favor," I pleaded. "Café con un sandwich."
"We're building a wall to keep you people out," he shouted. "We don't serve illegals here."
Even though I knew it was all an act, the words cut through me like a knife. I asked the other customers for help. But each one turned away, giving me the cold shoulder.
"I don't speak Mexican," they said time and again. One customer not only agreed with our racist man behind the counter, but also told me if I didn't leave, he would throw me out of the deli himself or call the cops.
But then, just when I thought no one would step up against racism, the tide turned. All it took were the words of one compassionate customer "He's a human being just like you and me," she said.
Immediately, the crowd joined in, angrily berating the racist proprietor. "This is America! We're a melting pot. Maybe you're the one who should leave!"
Finally, people with the courage to face down bigotry. It was as though someone had pulled the knife out.
If you ask me, that's what heroism is all about. Most people think it involves dramatic events and near superhuman feats of courage. I have found that this is not the case at all.There are so many problems and challenges in the world today and, as a TV journalist, I see more than my share. But lately, I find myself seeking out everyday heroes, people looking to make the world a better place. I think we're all searching for them, in some way or another.
And I find them wherever I go.
CLICK HERE to read more of "Heroes Among Us."