Fewer studies, more action

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

April 23, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives reported Friday that on any given day nearly half of the black men in Washington were either incarcerated, on parole or probation, or being sought by police on a warrant.

By Monday, I had received copies of the newspaper story on this study from five different readers.

Each reader had highlighted or underlined every reference to "black men."

One reader had scrawled racial epithets on the clipping. Another reader added a typed note to the effect that the money spent on inner city schools and welfare would be better spent on the forced sterilization of black women. A third reader advised me that it is time I stopped making excuses for the criminality of "my people."

I get a lot of mail like this.

This newspaper occasionally runs mug shots of black men who have been accused of a violent crime. It is a controversial practice that we constantly debate in the newsroom.

Nevertheless we run them and within days those mug shots are clipped and sent back to me, often stapled to pictures of gorillas or baboons and with the scrawled notation, "Notice the resemblance?"

For the record, I don't see a resemblance.

The suspects in the mug shots we print usually look sullen and mean and they have the dull, heavy-lidded look that calls to mind two centuries of black stereotypes. I suspect that the people who clip and mail these pictures look more like a baboon than the alleged criminals.

Obviously, there is no talking to such people -- particularly since they never include a name or return address.

Still, it may be time to concede that studies such as the one just released by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) are not having the effect for which they are intended.

"Our purpose," explained Herb Hoelter, executive director of the NCIA, "was to show how the convergence of a number of public policies -- from the money we spend on urban school systems to social welfare to this whole get-tough on crime movement -- are ** all working together to criminalize young black men.

"I think the study demonstrates quite dramatically that the entire criminal justice system, and indeed much of our social policy, is failing miserably."

The modern-day civil rights movement has made three great public relations blunders in recent years -- all tied to this same issue.

The civil rights movement invented the notion of black-on-black crime, as if there are large numbers of blacks deliberately seeking to victimize other blacks. Most criminals, black or white, pick on the people around them.

The civil rights movement raised the issue of the black man as an endangered species, although the phrase suggests that black men are dumb animals and powerless to respond to the problems they face.

The civil rights movement promoted the statistic that there are more young black men in the nation's jails and prisons than in the nation's universities.

Each of these concepts had a good intent: They invented black-on-black crime in the hopes that black criminals would think twice about victimizing their friends and neighbors. They hoped the notion of the endangered species would create a sense of urgency among policy makers.

But few public officials, nationally or locally, seem moved to rethink their policies.

And statistics showing large percentages of black men in trouble with the law merely serve to feed pre-existing stereotypes of blacks as self-destructive and criminal.

Hoelter said his organization is seeking funds to replicate the District of Columbia study in the Baltimore area.

That's nice.

I'm sure the organization will find that here, as in Washington, an inordinately high percentage of black men are involved with the criminal justice system on any given day.

If the researchers wanted to, they could track the aggregation of disproportionately harsh decisions from the school system to the courthouse, which lead to a disproportionate number of blacks with lengthy records.

But then what?

Public officials -- the black ones and the white ones, the local ones and the national ones -- seem determined to pursue policies that are racist in their effect.

What we need is not another study so much as a public commitment to change.

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