Racial Stereotyping Shifts to the Left

May 05, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Roger Lyons, who directs the operations of the Baltimore Urban League, likes to recall the time, back in California, when he decided to attend a meeting of an important environmental organization to which he had belonged for years.

The people at the door greeted him politely, perhaps with that slight touch of additional deference well-brought-up white people a certain generation used to reserve for African-Americans, and wondered if he might not have come to the wrong place.

''I'm sorry, sir,'' someone said, ''but this is a meeting of the Sierra Club.''

There was no intent to exclude, and of course Mr. Lyons was admitted to the meeting, no doubt after profuse apologies. But the implicit assumption that a black person's concerns wouldn't extend to environmental issues, while perhaps not racist, was still ignorant and pretty embarrassing.

Throughout American history, blacks have had to put up with implicit and often insulting assumptions by whites about their education, their abilities, their buying habits, their financial status, their taste in art and music and their political views.

Once this kind of racial stereotyping originated with those who opposed the political aspirations of most black Americans -- meaning, generally speaking, those on the political right. Politicians and others seeking to defend the indefensible, such as segregated schools or drinking fountains, employed offensive stereotypes as a weapon.

But laws and culture change, and today, with legal segregation consigned to the dustheap of history, the most sweeping assumptions about Of course blacks have an interest in the environment; they live in it too. And there's little ambivalence about crime among blacks trying to raise families.

blacks come from supporters of what is said to be the black political agenda -- generally speaking, those on the political left.

They may be the products of benign intent, but these stereotypes -- that blacks have little interest in the environment; that blacks are ambivalent about urban crime; that blacks always support making government larger; that black votes are money in the bank for any Democrat running against any Republican -- are just as flawed, and just as doomed, as those promulgated by the Jim Crow politicians of four or five decades ago.

For more than 15 years now, Myrtha Allen, one of the Baltimore school system's great teachers, has been introducing city kids to the natural world around them. If there are any bright spots in the urban landscape, Ms. Allen's classes are surely among them; if there is any hope that the Baltimore of the future will a better place, the hundreds of children she's taught are part of the reason why.

Of course blacks have an interest in the environment; they live in it too. Roger Lyons knows that, which is why the Baltimore Urban League has recently initiated some exploratory discussions with what might be called the conservation community in Maryland. What will come ofthese sessions remains to be seen, but that they're taking place at all is notable and encouraging.

On crime, there's little ambivalence among urban African-Americans trying to raise families and live normal lives.

There remains some understandable concern that increased law enforcement not be achieved at the price of reduced civil liberties, but there's a clear consensus that city streets must be made safe again.

Black talk-show hosts across the country -- including Alan Keyes in Baltimore and Ken Hamblin in Denver, among others -- have understood the strength of community feeling on this subject for some time, and have helped focus it. Now elected officials are beginning to get the message too. Before too long, it's a safe prediction, more urban voices will be heard echoing Kurt Schmoke's hard-line views on the death penalty.

Crime is one of several issues currently driving black Americans to the right. Polls indicate that law-and-order candidates from both parties are getting more support from blacks than ever before. Despite the opposition of national Democratic figures, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the new Republican mayor of Jersey City received the support of two of every five black voters.

In Virginia, one out of five black voters, more than expected, helped make Republican George Allen the state's new governor. Blacks supporting Mr. Allen tended to like his plan to deny parole to those convicted three times of violent crimes.

Now, none of this adds up to a real trend. It seems unlikely that the next stereotype of a black American will be that of a law-and-order Sierra Club member who votes Republican and reads Forbes magazine. But maybe there won't be any more stereotypes of any kind. Maybe black Americans, once and for all, are busting out of the cocoon of group-based politics we keep trying to wrap them up in, and acting like -- well, as unpredictably and individually as everyone else.

Anyway, as the philosopher Jake Barnes said, isn't it pretty to think so?

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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