Racial problems get louder when we remain silent

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 08, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here is what Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is uncoincidentally black, has to say about race in America:

"The time has come for honesty within the black community. A generation of well-meaning social scientists has made the notion of "the culture of poverty" taboo. . . . It's time to concede that, yes, there is a culture of poverty.

"How could there not be? How could you think that culture matters and deny its relations to economic success? In general, a household made up of a 16-year-old mother, a 32-year-old grandmother and a 48-year-old great-grandmother is not a site for hope and optimism. It's also true that not everyone in every society wants to work, that not all people are equally motivated.

"There! Was that so hard to say?"

Actually, yes.

Gates, W. E. B. DuBois professor of humanities at Harvard University and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant for his work in African-American culture, wrote the above words for the latest issue of Forbes magazine. The piece is called "Two Nations . . . Both Black," and it is provocative and brave.

Where much writing about race relations in America is an exercise in delicacy, in qualifying and quantifying so as not to offend and not to have any honest intentions of dialogue mistaken for racism, Gates' article is an unmistakable tearing at this sore spot of America's that never quite heals.

It never heals, in some measure, because we are so terrified to talk honestly about it.

A week ago, we learned that more than half of all young black men in Baltimore are involved with the criminal-justice system on any given day -- whether in prison, on parole or awaiting trial. And that number doesn't include those who were in such straits but have now passed through the system, or who might be committing crimes but haven't been caught.

So the figures, though no one wants to say so, are actually more troubling than they seem.

What is so troublesome about this as a subject for discussion is that the figures do not merely identify some members of a race of people, but automatically stigmatize others as well. In America, we carry the stigma of our historic racial divide as a kind of national scarlet letter.

To bring up such talk of race seems a kind of bad manners to bring to the table of national brotherhood.

When the criminal-justice figures were released last week, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and State's Attorney Stuart Simms, two men wrestling daily with this complex, damnable, heartbreaking dilemma, had their say.

Both men voiced the same concerns, and both were exactly right, but neither went far enough: A history of white oppression, yes. A federal government that turns its back, yes. Lack of economic hope, poor housing conditions, an insidious network of narcotics traffic that makes it easier to track low-level black dealers than high-level white financiers, yes, yes, yes.

America is guilty of all these things, yes. But there's enough guilt TTC to spread around, isn't there? To let the dialogue die without everyone accepting a certain responsibility is to give a certain freedom, a certain validity, to those who make the streets mean.

A class of young black men is murdering off its own community and spreading a generalized fear, and everyone is afraid to say so. When whites talk of this in public, they run the danger of being called racist. When blacks talk of it in public, they run the risk of being called sellouts.

And so everyone talks to his own skin color in private, in whispers and nods, and those who make the streets unlivable gain courage in the silence. And, by failing to acknowledge the problem, we fail to find ways to stop it.

A friend of mine teaches English at a West Baltimore middle school that is all black and mostly poor and perceived by whites as a hellhole. My friend is white. Several times last year he took about a dozen kids to a

downtown theater.

"There are kids at this school," he was saying over the weekend, "who are just fabulous. They're bright, they're hungry to learn, and they want to do things with their lives. And there are lots of other kids who come to school every day and do their work.

"But there's another group that's real tough. And you can see why it happens. I used to drop these kids at home after the theater. Midnight, and the streets are filled with adults and children.

"One girl got out at Greenmount and North, and there were dope dealers operating openly. She's a wonderful kid. Then, the last two months of school, she stopped showing up. She was traumatized. She was sitting outside with her cousin, and somebody shot the cousin."

One day last week I went to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was filled with black men and women, professionals, who perform lifesaving work every day. I walked through an elementary school where black teachers performed the miracle of educating kids ++ who are hungry to learn. I got back to the office and took a phone call from an elderly black woman.

"My nephew," she said, "just won an Emmy award for writing. Could you write about it?"

Yes! Those stories of black people have to be told, and we know it.

But the streets are treacherous, and the numbers say it is mostly young black men making them so, and we need to talk about this: not to stigmatize a race but to honestly identify the destructiveness and to find a way out of the mess.

Is that so hard to say?

Well, yes.

But, if we stay silent about it, this tragedy grows, and it takes on a life of its own, and it gains courage.

And we grow further from the truth, and from each other.

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