Feeding on stereotypes

Robert L. Steinback

December 13, 1991|By Robert L. Steinback

THE SAME day I received the unsigned note saying "welfare is better in Afrika," another letter arrived from a disaffected white reader, another victim of ethnic demagoguery.

"Do you wonder why David Duke is so popular? Why there seems to be a racial backlash coming? It is because we are tired of giving you handouts, tired of your crime statistics, tired of your illegitimate children, tired of your drugs, tired of hearing you complain about how tough you have it . . .

"Well, each in our own way, we are starting to 'pay back.' Through lowering grades, not informing you of good deals, blocking loan and employment applications, imposing restrictions and other little things, we are going to stick it to you until you earn your keep. You are the biggest racial group of complainers in the United States."

To me, crime, drugs and illegitimate children are not problems that affect Americans; they are plagues brought down upon whites by blacks. Assistance to struggling fellow citizens has become blacks "looking for a handout." This reader is beyond compassion; he sees the answer as secretly "getting even" with blacks by hurting them in some indirect way.

Unsigned letters normally annoy me, but this one especially touched and saddened me. It cuts so directly to the heart of the matter.

I think I know how this person feels. He is responding to frustration in precisely the same way many blacks have for years: with emotion, bitterness and anger.

Our society is trapped in a downward spiral of warring stereotypes -- and ugly stereotypes die hard. For generations, whites stereotyped blacks as lazy, dull-witted, dirty, untrustworthy, and so on. So, many blacks responded with their own stereotypes: Whites were racist and evil. Now an unnerving number of whites are buying into new stereotypes: Blacks are predisposed to government dependency, crime and drugs.

It should be clear by now, since all of us have been targets of brutal, unfair stereotypes, that stereotyping others only intensifies their frustration and anger. The reason is obvious: If a problem is deemed to be related to race, and race can't be changed, then the problem can't be corrected. What could produce more frustration than that?

People don't act a certain way because of their race. Yet Americans have so much trouble grasping this simple truth.

There is nothing about my being black that predisposes me to welfare, crime or any other behavior associated with blacks. By the same ridiculous reasoning, I could conclude that white people shouldn't be trusted with financial institutions, since nearly all the perpetrators of the savings and loan and Wall Street scandals have been white.

Behavior -- constructive and destructive -- is entirely a matter of conditioning. Conditioning is a function of one's environment: not just parents and neighborhood, but teachers, clergy, police, employers, people we bump into on the street -- and certainly the media. All of us are products of our respective environments. We do what we learn. We think what we're taught.

Race can't be changed, but conditions can. If a problem affects one community more harshly than another, it is because conditions there are different. Not because the race of the people is different.

We're nearing a critical crossroad: We'll have to choose between greater compassion or deeper anger. Whites who feel society is disregarding their needs can learn what so many blacks have felt for generations. Blacks offended by being blamed for all of society's ills can learn what it's been like for those many white people who truly aren't racists. Or, like the angry author of the "pay back" letter, we could use our feelings as an excuse to increase our blind hatred of the perceived enemy.

Robert L. Steinback is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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