Prejudice and the 'Problem People'

CLARENCE PAGE

August 18, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- There is an old story about a cat who jumped onto a hot stove once and found the experience to be so profoundly unpleasant that he never jumped on a hot stove again. Of course, he never jumped on a cold stove, either.

Ruth Jandrucko of Miami, who was mugged in a parking lot in 1986, can identify with that cat. Ever since she was mugged, the pTC 65-year-old woman says she panics at the sight of black men.

She's not alone. As a black man who has had the experience of being passed over by taxis, seeing women wait for the next elevator rather than get on alone with me or seeing people suddenly lock their car doors at a red light when they see me standing on the nearby corner, I know she's not alone.

Shelby Steele, the black, middle-class conservative writer, calls these ''little slights'' that I should best ignore while keeping my eyes on life's larger prizes.

I try. Still, it's tiring. And enraging.

Anyway, what separates Mrs. Jandrucko's story from countless other cases of individuals coping privately with the aftermath of a violent crime, according to USA Today, is this: She has persuaded Florida authorities to sympathize with her enough to award her full disability and $50,000 in worker's compensation, since she says she can no longer work at the racially integrated company where she was employed before the accident.

Maybe Dan Quayle is right. Maybe we do have too many lawyers. The news sparked inspiration of a financial kind in the imagination of the friend who called to tell me about it. ''I've got a business proposition for you, Clarence,'' she said. ''We can consult people on things to be afraid of so they can collect workmen's compensation.''

Prejudice for profit? Now, there's a twist on Reagan-era enterprise. Ah, yes, I can see it now:

Can't work in high-rises because you fell off a ladder and now you panic at the sight of anything taller than a chair? Sue. Can't get to work because a fast-closing door caught you in the rear and now you panic at the sight of doorknobs? Sue. Spurned by a baseball player and now you panic at the sight of sports fans? Sue.

Maybe my friend, who happens to be white, and I are being too heartless. Or maybe we're just being too jealous.

After all, I might like some compensation for the two unpleasant occasions in my southern Ohio youth when I was assaulted by roving bands of young white males who happened to have rural Southern accents. They weren't after my money. They just wanted to beat me up. They didn't like black people. Who knows? Maybe each one of them was mugged by a black man, too. I didn't stop to ask.

I escaped serious injury, but I confess that the experience causes me to flinch even today when I am approached by a pickup truck that has a gun rack in the rear, a Confederate flag on the bumper and a hound dog riding shotgun. I know better than to expect all good ol' boys to be racial bigots, but prejudices are not rational.

Yet, if my unpleasant personal experiences had left me with a phobia so fierce that I panicked at the sight of white people, I would have a tough time not only finding work but also living in this country, my home, which I love in spite of its flaws and occasional foolishness.

Unfortunately America is infested with a national fear of young black males that exceeds rational basis. Since urban blacks commit more crime proportionately (although not numerically) than whites, many people reason that it's better to be safe than sorry and dodge all young black males.

Of course, most victims of black criminals also are black, although that brings little comfort to whites caught in the spillover. I received a memorably poignant letter from an aging white Chicago woman whose family I know. She was mugged with extraordinary brutality by several young males who happened to be black. She wanted me to know that her resulting wariness of all young black males on the street was based on something more than irrational prejudices.

She was writing in response to an essay I had written about how sad I felt that, when my cute little 3-year-old son grows up in 10 years to become a teen-ager, chances are good that he will suddenly be perceived as someone you should cross the street to avoid.

If we haven't taken steps to heal this problem by then, don't tell me how proud you are of America's racial progress.

A national phobia has grown up around a distorted picture of poverty and its bitter fruits, like crime, and the news story about Mrs. Jandrucko's personal phobia symbolizes it. Since the '60s, when poverty, high crime and broken families usually were reported as a problem that touched all races, it has been transformed through the distortions of media and political processes into something else: a black problem.

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