Doing the white thing

July 16, 1996|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

BOSTON — MIAMI -- Trust me, you only ''think'' you've heard this story before.

It involves a well-to-do enclave near Washington and some black kids from the poor neighborhoods in town. No basketball courts where they live, so they descend upon suburbia's court in droves. Reports of break-ins and vandalism multiply until finally, suburbia has had enough. It declares its basketball court off-limits to outsiders and hires guards to enforce the rule. The guards are soon accused of indiscriminately harassing young black men, and the community searches its soul and wonders if it is guilty of separatism and elitism.

If at this point you're saying to yourself, ''Well, I do know this tale,'' think again. Because, like the kids they kicked off their basketball court, the residents of the upper-crust community of Perrywood, Md., are black.

I guess you could call this progress, though if you're African American, you might have harsher words for it. Unless, that is, you live in a place like Perrywood, in which case you're probably torn like a dry-rotted cloth.

TTC A black woman I know says she understands what Perrywood did, ''but I don't like understanding it.''

I know what she means. Makes you wonder if you've been away from the 'hood too long. Makes you wonder what sort of snob you've become. Understand: I think Perrywood could have found a less brutish and confrontational way of handling its problem, but I don't fault the community for acting.

Break-ins? Vandalism? Heck, yeah, they had the right to take action, and it doesn't much matter what color the offenders were.

Except that they were black, so it's not that simple, is it? Perrywood forces the question that has tortured every black mother's child who ever escaped concrete and graffiti for places where there are trees: What about the brothers who didn't get here?

The greater good

Some have argued that upwardly mobile blacks ought to remain in dangerous, depressing neighborhoods to provide inspiration, role models and stability. The argument appeals to idealism but leaves pragmatism cold. It's hard to think of the greater good while your children are dodging gunfire.

So what about the brothers who didn't make it?

Goodbye, have a nice life?

Seeya, wouldn't want to be ya?

The questions resonate only because the blacks of the middle and upper classes have been so stupefyingly inert when it comes to assisting our brethren. We have collectively failed to teach, to reach, to give.

If privileged black folk are chastened by their dereliction, you wouldn't know it from my neighborhood. As far as I can tell, the only thing obsessing the brother down the street is his car.

It's 30 or 40 percent black where I live, quiet as a mortuary with big houses, large lots and plenty of greenery. The other day my wife and I stood under the twilight and I asked, ''Did you ever think we'd live someplace like this?''

She said no, but me, I always knew it. Knew it those nights when I lay in bed listening to rodents scuttle through the walls. Knew it those days when we wouldn't let the kids out to play because we feared drive-by violence. Knew it with a consuming passion.

But making it happen required an unbinding of tethers. A logical person would point out that they were tethers of class, not race. Would observe that the very fact that we obsess on Perrywood indicates how regularly we confuse the two. We have grown so accustomed to speaking of black America as if it were a synonym for dysfunction that it's worth noting that Perrywood did not act because those were black kids. It did so because they were bad kids. And bad kids are a rainbow coalition.

That's the inarguable truth, but it's doubtless cold comfort to the young men who were banished from Perrywood's court, and to Perrywood, caught doing the white thing. It should also trouble the black middle class, which, in this episode, sees its failures come back to bite it on the butt.

Class, not race. It may be truth, but this truth sets no one free.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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