This is an open letter to one of my readers.
You're the one who called about my column on the black kid who's suing the Eddie Bauer clothing store. He's seeking $85 million in damages because a security guard accused him of shoplifting a shirt he was wearing at the time. The guard demanded that Alonzo Jackson produce a receipt to prove his ownership. When the young man was unable to (are you carrying receipts for what you're wearing right now?), the guard confiscated the garment and sent Jackson home. The teen-ager found his receipt, went back and reclaimed his property.
Tough break, you said. A shame an honest kid had to go through something like that. But it's understandable, you said. Who can blame the guard for being suspicious? After all, 25 percent of all black people are criminals.
I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure you meant to cite the often-quoted statistic that holds that a quarter of all young black males are under the supervision of the justice system, either through probation, parole or incarceration.
I won't beat you over the head with your exaggeration, wild and offensive though it is. Frankly, the true statistic is so appalling as to offer little consolation for your error.
Nor are you the first person to contend that because of that statistic, society is justified in treating African-Americans as guilty until proven innocent. It's a popular argument among closet racists: Too bad about the good kids, but they have to suffer so society can protect itself from the bad. Numbers don't lie.
Funny thing about that argument, though. I have yet to see one of its proponents extend it to its logical conclusion.
Did you know that nearly 90 percent of all violent crime in this country is committed by men? White men and black men, usually, but men. In fact, males also commit the overwhelming majority of burglaries and drug offenses. Reminds me of an early episode of the sitcom "Living Single," where the characters are musing about what the world would be like without men: "A bunch of fat, happy women and no crime!"
It's hard to argue with that. Indeed, the numbers being what they are, I sometimes wonder how men -- white men in particular -- would take living in a matriarchal society that prejudged them on the basis of male criminality.
Do you think you could handle it, reader of mine? Security guards shadowing you around the department store? Cops pulling you over on pretenses and whims? Strangers assuming your degeneracy at every turn, every day until you die? Can you imagine women turning Bill Gates away from a pricey store, or clutching their purses when Cal Ripken boards the elevator, not caring that these are men of accomplishment and distinction? Can you imagine someone sending your son home in his shirt sleeves? And, can you imagine being told you have to understand such treatment because numbers don't lie?
No, of course you can't. You're an individual, aren't you? How dare someone deny you something as sacred as your own identity.
Good point. I suggest you remember it the next time you're tempted to damn 30 million people for crimes committed by a bare fraction of their number.
That such condemnation comes so easily to you speaks eloquently of your inability to see a black person as just that: a person. One individual. It's not too much to say that ignorance and hatred have left you blind.
That's not an uncommon condition, but it is a sad one. Especially since it's self-imposed.
I guess that's why I pity you so.
Can you see the black teen-ager standing before you? Can you see the black woman staring at you? Or can you see anything that isn't a "type"?
For God's sake open your eyes. Look closely and answer truthfully now:
Can you even see me?