Cancer on black culture

September 30, 1997|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- A University of Texas law professor has come under heavy fire from black and Latino legislators for making statements that give aid and comfort to racists. Unfortunately, his critics are making statements that risk doing the same thing.

Professor Lino Graglia's remarks came in a news conference for an organization that supports the 1996 federal court decision that stopped Texas colleges from considering race in student admissions.

Since then, black and Hispanic enrollment at the University of Texas Law School has plummeted from the highest in the nation to one of the lowest. Mr. Graglia, who is white, thinks he knows why.

"Blacks and Mexican-Americans are not academically competitive with whites in selective institutions," he said. "They have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement. Failure is not looked upon with disgrace."

For that, outraged black and Hispanic legislators have called for the tenured professor to be fired. The university's Chancellor Bill Cunningham called his remarks "an affront to the entire university community."

They are that. You can find white folks whose culture doesn't encourage achievement, either. Some of them wind up as featured guests on daytime talk shows with such titles as "My Girlfriend Dresses Like a Slut."

But we don't use their failures to indict the entire white race.

By contrast, Professor Graglia's remarks insult all of the black and Hispanic scholars who have graduated from the University of Texas and elsewhere. Even those who got into college with the help of affirmative action were on their own in determining how they got out. Some didn't make it, just as many whites didn't. But many others have excelled.

In my family, it was unacceptable for me or my cousins to be satisfied with being only "as good" as white folks. "You're gonna have to be twice as good to get half as much," our elders told us.

Candor appreciated

Still, I don't think Mr. Graglia should be silenced. Instead, we should appreciate his candor. He is only saying out loud what many others are afraid to say in mixed company. That's why I agree with President Clinton that we need a national dialogue on race. Silencing Mr. Graglia wouldn't make his views go away. It would only make him a martyr.

Besides, maybe he's not a bigot. Maybe he's just ignorant. It's easy for white people to be ignorant of how people of color really live. Polls show most white Americans get their knowledge of black people from the media, not personal contact. That means most white Americans know black Americans by archetypes and stereotypes -- wealthy news anchors, welfare "queens," sleazy "gangsta" rap stars -- not as ordinary, hard-working family people like themselves.

Unfortunately, these days it is difficult for those who support affirmative action to defend it without sounding like we, too, don't think blacks or Hispanics can measure up any other way, as if there either is something wrong with our genes or our culture.

So I recommend a different strategy. I think we should acknowledge that Professor Graglia is right. Partly. A cancer is growing on black and Hispanic cultural life in this country. It is the cancer of self-defeating attitudes.

While people like him apparently think racism is not an important problem, the cancer of self-defeating attitudes tells us that it is too great of a problem for us to overcome with special breaks.

It causes too many of us to quit before we get started. It tells us that baseball and basketball are more rewarding than books. It ridicules proper English as "talking white" and academic achievement as "acting white."

While more than half of black and Latino America is rising in income, too many of the rest are slipping backward or barely hanging on.

White people contributed to this mess, but we cannot depend on white people to get us out of it. We need to replace self-defeat with self-reliance. We need to hold our children, our parents and our public schools accountable to the highest standards of excellence.

Instead of begging for affirmative action, black and Latino Americans should be demanding a fair share of educational opportunities for our communities in return for our tax dollars. Even after courts disallow racial goals and timetables, it shouldn't stop special outreach efforts based on geography, income levels or some other means that can equalize educational opportunities.

I have seen some of the best black minds of my generation lost to the cancer of self-defeating attitudes. We have good reason to criticize the professor for hanging our dirty laundry out in public. But we also must redouble our efforts to get that laundry clean.

Clarence Page writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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