Miss Collins Cracks

October 17, 1990|By Ken Hamblin

DENVER — Denver. IF YOU'RE BLACK in America, eventually white racism will impact some slice of your life. Because of that, blacks often are conditioned like gladiators to anticipate the worst.

Usually the first lessons are taught by the early role models -- mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, family and friends -- who relate tales of white bigotry, stories of discrimination or opportunities lost because of color. These first stories set the stage for a lifelong battle against, and fear of, white oppression. Real or imagined, once this low-grade complex has taken hold, ** the damage is done, and protecting oneself from fair-skinned malice becomes a lifelong preoccupation for some Americans of color. Underclass blacks -- the minority within a minority -- seem to suffer this condition the most.

Among the insecure, the struggle for a black identity often is so acute and jumbled that whites who befriend them, who have no intention of contributing to the smoldering pot of bigoted race relations, are bewildered and confused about what to say and do. So eventually they back off. And even that concession to black fury is sometimes perceived as proof of white hatred.

But suppose you're black, above average and well educated. And suppose you've been groomed to compete in mainstream America, but you're afraid, afraid of the racism you've been cautioned is always there. Assume also, that fear keeps you constantly stressed and on your guard. Suppose you perceive the presence of racism all around you, but you can't prove its existence. What do you do?

Possibly, you do what one black Georgia university student did. She invented it. Enter one Sabrina Collins, a freshman at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia.

In a report to the university last spring, she said she had received an anonymous, racist, life-threatening letter. Ms. Collins was reported to have collapsed and become mute with fear and shock after receiving the death letter.

Furthermore, she said she discovered another racist message in her room when she lifted a rug and found the words ''die nigger die'' scribbled in nail polish on the floor. Needless to say, the university was embarrassed. So the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was invited to analyze the situation and quickly solved the mystery. Suspect number one was Sabrina Collins herself.

The investigators became suspicious that Ms. Collins had written the letter when they realized she and the letter writer both had the same habit of misspelling the word ''you're'' as ''your.''

Then, the bureau uncovered other facts: 1. The typewriter used to type the letter was the same brand Ms. Collins works with in the library. 2. All identifiable fingerprints on the letter belonged to Ms. Collins. 3. The fingerprint pattern on the letter showed that it was Ms. Collins who put the letter in the typewriter and removed it.

Once she realized the jig was up, Ms. Collins broke down and cried.

Why did she do such a thing? Perhaps this 19-year-old black premedical student found herself cast into a white world and was emotionally unable to cope with being treated as an equal. Perhaps the stress of being at a predominantly white university panicked her. After all, if you believe ''whitey'' is out to get you, that's a tough place to be.

But is that what really sabotaged Sabrina Collins? Was it the fear of coming face-to-face with the white racism she had been warned about in a lifetime of stories? Or was it the impact of black anti-social misconceptions about race in America. Did that break Sabrina Collins? You tell me.

Make no mistake. Racism, and what it represents, is a serious human problem. But it is not the exclusive flaw of whites, as some blacks would have us believe.

No xenophobic person coming into the mainstream will enjoy an easy passage hobbled with the baggage and apprehension of the generations before. I'm concerned that black fear, not white racism, continues to hobble black Americans today. An unstable hypersensitive atmosphere continues to be nurtured when black parents, educators and politicians lay their disappointment at the feet of perceived white animosity.

With black emancipation in America came the responsibility to teach and to educate black children. And while community rabble rousers like New York's Al Sharpton may ease the pain of running from that responsibility, the black underclass cannot hide forever.

Eventually they must stand and be held accountable for failing literacy, a shorter lifespan, increased crime and moral decay in black ghetto communities without the benefit of white racism for camouflage. So the question remains the same. Who broke Sabrina Collins? Was it the presence of white racism, or was it a black fear of uncharted territory conveniently labeled racism? You decide.

Mr. Hamlin is a Denver columnist and radio personality.

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