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Moral fraying tears the entire social fabric

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 6, 2002


One man wanted to help, to become a role model, to teach young people to respect themselves. But he was so mired in trying to help himself that he didn't know what he could do. He still struggles with the demons of past drug addiction and too many days spent on the wrong side of the law.

Still, he was inspired with the desire to contribute something positive.

That is sometimes the columnist's reward: Someone reads your words and is moved by them.

That sometimes is also the columnist's punishment: Someone reads your words and is moved by them.

Sometimes you are rewarded and punished for the same words.

The man who wanted to help was moved by a column that urged black Americans to recapture the culture of strength, pride and morality that is slipping away as media portrayals validate new standards of behavior that lack those virtues.

In the days following publication of that column, I received several calls similar to his from people moved to seek active involvement in something positive.

I also received a number of gleeful calls from people who were absolutely ecstatic that I had written negatively about some aspects of black life in America.

"I was always told," one caller said, "be careful what you ask for, you might get it. That's what you people did," he said triumphantly, then hung up. Presumably, he was referring to a section of the column that said increased black participation has not eliminated negative stereotyping in the media but instead perpetuated a new one.

"That message needs to come from an African-American," another woman said, as if imparting long-hidden wisdom.

Others saw me as a comrade in arms deploring saggy pants and loud music. Others nauseated me with their paternalistic pronouncements of what needs to be done to fix black folks.

As if there were nothing wrong with white folks.

Some callers were astute enough to notice that everything in the column, either directly or through the slightest adjustment for specifics, applied also to white Americans. Most of my gleeful callers apparently didn't notice.

The primary difference is that relatively poor economic standing and the living conditions which accompany it mean that when there is a decline in values, the economy, family stability, or dozens of other indicators, black Americans feel a thud while white Americans are still in freefall.

White Americans are suffering from the same decline in morality, values, compassion and communal responsibility that blacks are; they just have more means for cover and concealment. That's what economic advantage buys. For example, a white teenager dealing drugs can cater to friends and acquaintances. They have buying power.

A black teenager trying to do the same thing among friends and acquaintances just as poor as he is would do no business. Consequently, he goes out on the street and hopes someone with money comes by.

Both live in communities with the same drug problem -- too many people using and selling -- but the effects are disparate: defining in one group, hidden in the other.

If my callers were as gleeful in finding and fixing white people's faults as they are those of black people, there wouldn't be a continuing cry for affirmative action. No one would continue to be so distrustful of school boards that the ratios of black to white students must be mandated by federal court order.

Whether we like it or not, black and white Americans are interlocked in this country's success or failure like the threads of tightly woven cloth. When one is allowed to unravel, the whole garment is diminished.

Failure of Americans to accept that is the point at which race relations and the unification of Americans are stalled. We persist in our separate, parochial view, which sees gains by one group as losses for another.

We continue to see criticism of one as vindication of another.

To some of my callers, having some of the flaws of black people pointed out by a black man was the opening they needed to give vent to their own flawed perceptions. Many reveled in the opportunity.

Frequently, frank discussion does not occur for precisely that reason. Candor puts weapons in the hands of people perceived to be the opposition.

So we allow the garment called America to come undone. Meanwhile, some of us are smug because the black thread seems to be unraveling first.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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