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All black people aren't alike; and we need to hear all sides

Published Saturday, December 8, 2001

All black people aren't alike; and we need to hear all sides

So it seems there's this new poll that contains sobering assessments and harsh criticisms of black people.

For instance, 42 percent of those surveyed felt that the biggest threat to black progress is lack of education.

Thirty-one percent of those surveyed felt that irresponsibility and disinterest are the main reason black fathers are frequently absent from the lives of their children.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed felt that black men have ''failed'' their families.

And guess what? One hundred percent of those surveyed are black.

In fact, the poll was conducted by BET as part of ''Under One Roof,'' an ongoing project surveying the state of the African-American family. You can find the results online at (click on ''Features'').

Some of those results will, I suspect, surprise many white people. It will be news to them that blacks judge themselves so harshly.

Small wonder. White folks don't, as a general rule, read Essence, hang out at the black neighborhood barbershop or visit So they would have no way of knowing that black folks are some of the most ruthlessly self-critical people you'll ever want to meet. But there's an unwritten rule to that criticism: White folks aren't allowed to hear it. Blacks don't usually speak frankly of their own failings in the presence of whites for the same reason you don't hand ammunition to a man who's trying to shoot you.

In other words, black folks tend to censor self-criticism for fear some white people will use that as validation for racism. Indeed, there's no shortage of whites for whom black self-criticism comes like manna from heaven. People for whom black poverty, crime, fatherlessness and other pathologies can never be discussed except as evidence -- indeed, proof -- of some genetic flaw that unfailingly attaches to brown skin.

So black folks have learned to preach a gospel of ''unity,'' under which criticism of the family stays inside the family. It's a well-intentioned rule with, for my money, an unintended and negative side effect. Namely, it encourages whites to think of blacks as a monolith possessed of but a single opinion on any given topic and to conclude that they are unwilling or unable to address their own failings. As the poll data suggest, few things could be further from the truth.

Which is, in a roundabout way, the reason I consider the BET survey a healthy thing for all of us to see. While I share the belief that it's important not to arm those who mean you harm, I think it's more important not to endorse one of the fundamental tenets of racism. Meaning the one that says, ''They're all alike.'' In other words, if you've heard what Derek thinks, there's no reason to listen to Rasheed.

Truth is, the white community needs to hear both Derek and Rasheed. And Tameka besides. And the black community needs to let them be heard, free of unwritten rules. Needs frank discussion as a means of confronting a myriad of serious problems. Yes, many of those problems grow from living nearly 400 years under slavery and American apartheid. Yes, too, many grow from personal failure, from the fact that black folks are heir to the same foolishness, foibles and flaws that beset all human beings. And many grow from some combination of all the above.

It would be healthy for the nation at large and the black community in particular for black people to be able to discuss those problems, to challenge, criticize and debate one another openly and honestly, without caring who hears. Healthy for the black community because it hastens the search for solutions. Healthy for the nation because it helps destroy the myth of monolith. Not to mention a certain insidious double standard. Or hadn't you noticed that, when white fathers fail their families, white people never have to stop and wonder if any of this will be interpreted as evidence of their congenital inferiority?

Yes, African Americans ought to be wary of ever appearing to validate bigotry. But where wariness demands abrogation of the fundamental human right to debate and dissent, it crosses the point of diminishing returns and makes us what we abhor. There is, after all, a word for the person who insists that all black people speak and think alike.


Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column runs in Living & Arts every Thursday and Saturday. Call him toll-free at 888-251-4407.

© 2002 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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