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Bill Maxwell

Perceived criminality all too real

As a retiree, I have undergone two criminal background checks during the last two years. The first was to be cleared to become an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College, and the second was to be accepted as a volunteer for Pinellas County's nature parks.

During the SPC process, I was with several other middle-aged to older people, black and white, seeking part- or full-time employment. All of us were well-groomed and appropriately dressed. At the sheriff's facility, I was with four young black males, one white female and two white males. The whites were appropriate in every manner. The black males were ill-groomed and sagging, totally inappropriate for that public space.

I listened as the two black males next to me complained that in addition to an interview, a criminal background check was required for the lowly jobs they were seeking. The youngest-looking one worried that a shoplifting conviction would block him from getting the job. His sentence had been 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The other had been arrested but not convicted.

After being fingerprinted, I saw the two young black males still waiting for their turns. Although I have not seen them since that morning, I have not forgotten them, their inappropriateness and the perilous quest for employment they probably will face if they do not change their attitudes and behavior, if they do not learn to respect societal norms.

They and millions of other young black males nationwide are associated with crime, a stereotype referred to as "perceived criminality." Many Americans believe that black males commit violent crimes at a rate higher than other groups. Unfortunately, crime statistics consistently support this perception, and it is reinforced in popular culture. It is also true that African-American males are overrepresented in the nation's prison system. According to the Justice Department, there are 3,408 black male inmates for every 100,000 black males in the country, compared to 417 white male inmates for every 100,000 white males.

As far as I know, the overwhelming majority of African-Americans are aware of the grim statistics that produce the phenomenon of perceived criminality. They also are aware of its destructive consequences. The problem is that many blacks stay in a state of denial and blame everything and everybody else except themselves and their own practices for this crisis.

This crisis has to be repaired. And I am not naive. Although I know there are racial and structural barriers in U.S. society and in the economy that have contributed to many of the problems blacks face, I also know that blacks can change the direction of their lives and increase their opportunities of being successful.

Those arrogant young males I encountered at the sheriff's facility chose to be inappropriate. They chose to make everyone else in the room uncomfortable. They chose to commit their crimes and enter a justice system that dehumanizes. I see dozens of them every day in every city or town or black neighborhood I find myself in.

What must African-Americans do about young males? I am not a social scientist, but I am certain that blacks cannot solve their problems until they become introspective and acknowledge their complicity in this predicament. They must muster the will, the courage and a plan to earnestly deal with the issue of perceived criminality and its destructive impact on black males.

Frankly, I do not see American society embracing young black males anytime soon. Blacks must do their own embracing: Parents must raise their boys properly. Churches, the most powerful force in black culture, must regularly preach the gospel of save-the-young-black-male. Leaders must stop trying to be well-liked by their fellow blacks and start telling the harsh truth and risk being called Uncle Toms and sellouts.

Young males must be steered away from crime and unsavory behavior and attitudes that will mark them for life. They must be taught to stay in school, to avoid suspensions and expulsions. According to a new U.S. Education Department report, black boys are more likely to be harshly disciplined in school than other students.

Blacks are facing a human rights crisis in their midst, and it is their responsibility to end this crisis. It is insanity to continue to blame white people for this crisis while expecting to get a different result. It is up to blacks to stop the insanity of losing young black males.

Perceived criminality all too real 03/09/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 7:15pm]
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