Black intellectuals just don’t get it. They refuse to understand why there is widespread racial profiling and why they and people they know often are its victims. Black intellectuals simply refuse to acknowledge that there is a very obvious connection between themselves and the lawless black underclass.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, Brent Staples, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, wrote, “The experience of being mistaken for a criminal is almost a rite of passage for African-American men. Security guards shadow us in stores. Troopers pull us over for the crime of ‘driving while black.’ Nighttime pedestrians cower by us on the streets.”
In expressing his disgust that the Harvard professor-Cambridge cop confrontation has not been seen generally as a flagrant instance of racial profiling, Times columnist Bob Herbert urges black people “to rant and to rave, to demonstrate and to lobby, to march and confront and to sue and generally do whatever is necessary to stop a continuing and deeply racist criminal justice outrage.”
The Harvard professor — Henry Louis Gates Jr. — and Staples and Herbert think the unfair treatment of blacks by the police is 100 percent the fault of white people. In the view of Staples, white people need to exorcise their “poisonous misconceptions.”
But, for racial profiling to go away, blacks, especially black intellectuals, need to remove their blinders. They need to see what whites see. They need to see and acknowledge the criminal lifestyle that is pervasive in the black underclass.
Young black men of the ghettoes take pride in carrying guns and have little respect for law. When they go outside their communities, the guns and attitudes are not left behind. In much of their music, they are out front, bragging about their lawlessness.
White people’s awareness of that criminal lifestyle creates fear, and that fear, unfortunately, becomes wariness of even law-abiding blacks.
Black crime is the most potent determiner today of white attitudes toward blacks. While the great majority of American blacks are not involved in criminal activity, the criminal lifestyle of young black men makes most whites fearful and suspicious. That is a great injustice, because among middle-class blacks, there is relatively little crime.
In many cities — New Haven, Hartford, Brooklyn, Baltimore, for instance — major hospitals are located on the edge of neighborhoods populated by the black underclass. When whites who work at the hospitals drive through those neighborhoods, they make sure their windows are up and doors are locked. Walking from the parking lot to the workplace is risky. In e-mails, medical students and hospital staff are informed of robberies and beatings by young black men. They are warned against walking alone.
If it is dangerous to “drive while black,” it is even more dangerous to walk while white in some neighborhoods. Driving while black may result in the indignity of a speeding ticket; walking while white could result in a fractured skull.
Staples has written about his walks near the University of Chicago. It upset him that when white women walking alone noticed him, they would try to avoid him, speeding up or crossing the street. He was befuddled about why a completely innocent black man should be avoided. Why couldn’t the women understand that he was Brent Staples, not some thug?
The other day, I was walking down a street and suddenly I saw three young black men coming toward me. My first reaction was “uh-oh.” I thought I might be attacked. When I wasn’t, I thought how unfair it was to think that.
But it is a typical reaction when a white person walks alone in a fringy neighborhood. Lawless young black men cause fear among whites, and it is not unnatural for whites to be suspicious of all blacks who fit the profile of the attackers. Would it be unnatural for the citizens of African cities — like Lagos, Nairobi or Harare — to be suspicious of white men if there were an epidemic among whites of robbings and beatings?
The American media have bent over backward to avoid identifying criminal perpetrators and suspects by race. But by names, addresses, education and criminal records, people easily jump to conclusions, and they usually are correct. They then generalize.
It may not be logical to do this, but for most people, generalizing comes as easily as eating. This is not fair to law-abiding blacks, but most white people would rather have an unfair thought than risk being hurt.
Paul Marx is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven
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