Jumping to conclusions, and testing stereotypes

May 26, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

With screeching brakes and a booming radio, a gold-colored, 1994 Volvo sedan with New York license plates roars to a stop in the parking lot at Security Square Mall. The driver is a young black man in his late teens. He is wearing a sweat suit that matches the golden tint of his car, a baseball cap and black driving gloves. He's got two young women with him dressed in the tight-fitting shorts known as "Daizey Dukes."

Laughing and shouting at each other using language laced with vulgarities, the three head to the mall and disappear inside.

And that's it. I never saw them again. But in those few seconds, I found that I had leapt to a conclusion about the young man: Drug dealer.

This occurred last weekend. Since then, a number of police officers have assured me that my gut reaction to the young man was understandable and possibly accurate. I have talked about this with my friends and they acknowledge that they probably would have jumped to the same conclusion.

But let's take another look. I had seen nothing more suspicious than a young black man from New York, driving an expensive car and wearing tasteless clothes.

Ten years ago, I would have assumed that the young man was driving his father's car. Twenty years ago, I would have guessed that he had dropped out of school, gotten a job as a laborer, and was spending beyond his means.

And if he had been white -- though just as loud and vulgar -- I believe I would have assumed the driver was a young, urban professional just out of school and flaunting his wealth.

Consider also that the Justice Department's annual survey of crime and its victims -- considered a more accurate measure of crime than the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports -- finds that the majority of the people using and dealing drugs are white.

Statistically, then, if I were to leap to conclusions about anyone, it should be about the young white man in an expensive car.

So, for me at least, this stereotype linking young black men to drugs is new. And it probably is unfair. Where did it come from and what is to be done about it?

I put my question to Spencer Holland, director of the Center for Educating Black Males at Morgan State University. Dr. Holland deals with stereotypes and their effects every day. He is founder of Project 2000, a national program that brings successful black men into schools as role models for black boys.

"The same thing happens to me all of the time even though I know there are an awful lot of rich black people in the world," he says. "At the same time, there often is a little truth in stereotypes. Twenty years ago, as you say, a young man could drop out of school, get a job, and maybe buy himself an expensive car. Ten years ago, drugs had not penetrated the black community to the degree they have today. Now, jobs for unskilled laborers have all but disappeared and drugs seem to be everywhere.

"So when you see a young man making an ostentatious display of wealth, it is difficult not to jump to the conclusion that he is either a dealer or a pimp," Dr. Holland continues. "That's all many of our young men see for themselves."

"So how do we break this chain?" I ask.

"I'll tell you what we do at Project 2000: We destroy the myth of the hip, smart, successful drug dealer. We make him look bad. Last week, I asked the kids, 'What are the two things that happen to a drug dealer?' They answered, 'He either goes to jail or dies.' Then I asked, 'What's good about a drug dealer?' 'He has nice cars and lots of money.' 'Well,' I said, 'those things are short-lived. Is it worth it, to go to jail or die for a nice car?'

"I told the kids, 'You already are better than the average drug dealer because you can read at grade level,' " Dr. Holland continues. "I said, 'If you know a drug dealer, sit down sometime and ask him to read you a story. You'll see then how smart and how hip he is.' "

One tragedy of our war against drugs is that it is driven by pre-existing stereotypes about young black men. Those stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies, which then reinforce the stereotype. Dr. Holland's approach seems the only effective way to break this cycle.

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