One of the unfortunate side effects of a shrinking economy is that eventually racial, religious and political interest groups fight over a smaller pie. How we allocate resources is often determined by the perceptions the majority of us hold about the interest groups competing. If enough people believe the perceptions it soon becomes the public norm and real to most of them.
If we believe that such a group is an important thread in the American red, white and blue fabric, then we support their needs. If we perceive a group is not essential, they are pushed to the back of the agenda or off it all together.
Our perceptions are formed by how we are discussed on television, in newspapers and over the backyard fences with our neighbors. That's why African Americans were shocked at what talk show host Bill Bennett recently said. In a response to a caller who he had thought made a ridiculous assertion, Bennett decided to make an even more ridiculous one.
"If you wanted to reduce crime, you could - if that were your sole purpose - you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down," Bennett asserted. "That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."
Anyone that looks at crime statistics knows that less than 5 percent of a given population is involved in criminal activities. So in the African American community that means that 95 percent of us are not criminals, but Bennett painted everyone with the same brush.
To suggest that crime can be eliminated by aborting all of the Black babies because Blacks have a higher percentage of criminals than other group feeds into racial stereotypes. Even if the comments were not intended to harm, I know he never would have made a similar comment about any European American group.
I have read many comments from European Americans who believe that the continual crisis in Africa is too bad to be fixed. They hint that leaving Africans to succumb to the disease and poverty that is ravaging the continent is our only alternative. The way our media plays the stories of Africa's problems is slanted to give the perception of hopelessness. We are subtly told that the issues are to big for the resources of America or the world to fix.
The same kind of thing is being said about the predominantly Black ninth ward in New Orleans. However, two all-white neighborhoods that are just as flood prone as the ninth ward are being rapidly re-built without a thought.
These are the kinds of things that weigh on the minds of African Americans when we are forced to face our Americanism. We must ask ourselves if these issues come from how we are treated or from our vision of where we want the nation to go. Most of us in the past have used our treatment, real or perceived, as the basis for our decision to embrace America and buy into the "American way of Life."
We cannot afford off handed remarks, regardless of their intent. We cannot afford anyone reinforcing racial stereotypes because our own history as slaves and the slaughter of Jews in World War II makes it to clear where things like these lead if left unchallenged.
Money will continue to get tighter and how the public and private dollars are allocated will be determined by how we manage, or accept, these public and private perceptions we have of various groups. African Americans understand this. They are not surprised that conservative bulldogs of all colors are saying that Bill Bennett meant nothing by his remarks. We expect the issue to be marginalized and our protest to be called an over reaction.
But we also expect that people who say they are our allies and friends to step forward and add their voices to the chorus of those of us whom see and smell the danger of such remarks.
That's why it's hard to tell African Americans to buy into their vision of what America can be. That vision has to compete with reminders of how America can easily shatter the notion that America can be different.
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