A lot of my friends, including my fellow white liberals as well as Tea Party Republicans, think that racial discrimination in the United States is a thing of the past. The only problem, as many of them see it, is the bad behavior of the black underclass.
I accept that there is such a thing as a black underclass, in which crime, addiction, ignorance and irresponsible sexual behavior are acceptable. I don’t know enough to say to what degree these are problems of the African-American culture specifically and to what degree they are problems of the larger American culture, although I suspect the latter.
But I do not believe that members of the black underclass represent African-Americans. They are not a majority of the African-American population. The black people I’m acquainted with are all middle-class professionals like myself, or struggling poor people with middle-class values. Most of them had harder struggles than I have had to get where I am. This is not something I feel guilty about. It is fact of life which I recognize.
My opinions are based partly on stories they’ve told me about how they have to shape their behavior around the fears and prejudices of what people—how they feel in danger when they encounter a police officer, or they have business in an all-white suburb, or how they have to make a special effort to seem mild-mannered because white people are afraid of aggressive black men.
A minister friend of mine told me about his brother, an aerospace engineer, who was stopped while riding his bicycle by police who believed he had committed a robbery or larceny nearby. He showed them his corporate ID to no avail; they simply assumed he had stolen somebody else’s wallet. It was only when he phoned his employer to have someone vouch for him that they believe he was who he said he was. The important thing about this story is that it happened to the same person twice, in two different cities.
I remember once when I was a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, and was working on an article on what kinds of things people were buying as Christmas gifts that season. To make the article more readable, I went out to stores and interviewed shoppers.
I approached a well-dress black man, and was struck by his stricken here-we-go-again expression. Obviously he thought I was some kind of store official who thought I suspected him of shoplifting or something. A great expression of relief came over his face, when I identified myself and he told me what kind of computer games he was buying for his grandchildren.
The white-sheet racism that dominated so much of the country in 1963 has been pushed to the margins of society. American society has changed for the better, and white people of my generation who’ve made an effort to change their attitudes can take some of the credit for that. But racial prejudice is still a part of American life.
The video above, which shows how differently people react to a white guy, a black guy and a pretty white girl doing the same thing, is an example of this. Testers have found that a white person with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than a black person with a clean record. Use of illegal drugs is just as common among white people as black people, yet the vast majority of arrests and jail sentences are of poor black men.
In New York City, the police with Mayor Bloomberg’s approval engage in racial profiling—singling out young black men in poor neighborhoods to be stopped and frisked in humiliating ways. Black people that I know argue for affirmative action on the grounds that if they are singled out for bad treatment, it is only fair to get some special advantage as an offset. I oppose both racial profiling and affirmative action, but my righteous indignation is reserved for the former.
But what about the dysfunctional culture of the black underclass? I was brought up in the Christian tradition, which teaches that you should be more concerned with your own faults, the beam in your own eye, than with your neighbor’s faults, the speck in his eye.
I don’t believe that being lectured by someone like me is going to change the behavior of any black person, but maybe there is some slight possibility of influencing some of my fellow whites.