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Airing dirty laundry



There's a little game I play with a friend via e-mail. When one of us finds news of some weird or outrageous criminal event, we send it to the other along with the question: black or white?

It's a guessing game in which we base our conclusion on the person's name, where it happened, how it happened and do we think a black or white person would do this. Sometimes we don't know for sure because there is no photo available.

Most of the time we guess right.

It's not a very enlightened activity and not very politically correct. But it's the kind of thing African-Americans have always done. Probably less so now than in decades past, but there used to be a pregnant moment after blacks heard that some horrible crime had been committed when your first thought was "I hope he's not black."

If there was no picture shown, we would assume the criminal was white because they never show the white guys. But if the perpetrator were black, there would be that picture on television or in the newspaper, the face of the black criminal — obviously on the worst hair day of his life — that just sucked all the air out of you. Somehow it was a reflection on every black person in America if the crime had been committed by one of your race and one more reason for them to hate us.

"We grew up feeling that we had to take responsibility for every bad thing a black person did," Washington Post columnist Donna Britt, a one-time Detroiter, told me the other day.

It's how people in minority communities think. For instance, after Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in April, numerous Koreans and Korean organizations apologized for the actions of one mentally ill individual. They felt that the shame of one reflected on them all.

Because of that feeling of collective shame, African-Americans have a tendency to hide and repress any aspect of our communities that could be seen as negative. It's like we're besieged and need to circle the wagons. Never expose our weaknesses or give them more ammunition to use against us. Uplifting the race meant not airing your dirty laundry in public.

I recently got a letter from a reader admonishing me for one of my columns. I shouldn't take blacks to task about "something we do among ourselves that is nobody else's business," she wrote.

It's a natural inclination. What parent hasn't had to tell their child that what is said and done inside their home stays there. And that's the innocent stuff such as mentioning that you think the neighbor is an uptight prick. When it comes to things like mental illness, addictions, sexual abuse and criminal activity, families really pull the shades down and go into denial.

And some blacks would just as soon we throw up a big curtain and keep everything "black" among ourselves.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson probably depended on that attitude in 1984 when he used the word "hymie" to refer to Jews while speaking to an African-American journalist. He probably felt protected by the cloak of the "brotherhood." Unfortunately for Jackson, the brother mentioned it to a white colleague and it ended up in a newspaper story. And it derailed Jackson's run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Several years ago when I was editor of Metro Times, a black politico approached me about writing a story revealing Jackson's prodigious womanizing. It was apparently well-known among his inner circle. As I pressed the guy for details he decided not to do the story because the revelation would probably destroy the his career in the civil rights movement.

But it all came out in 2001 when Jackson admitted to fathering an out-of-wedlock child with one of his RainbowPUSH Coalition staffers. What came as a surprise to the rest of us was reported to have been an open secret within the organization. But information is like flowing water. One way or the other it's going to leak out.

"There's always going to be spies in your camp," said Barbara Williams, a recent Detroit Public Library retiree I happened to discuss this with. "Somebody is always going to say something."

In Walter Mosely's book Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, a group of black men discuss what to do about a drug dealer in the neighborhood. When one suggests that they call the police, another responds, "A black man — no matter how bad he is — bein' brutalized by the cops is a hurt to all of us. Goin' to the cops ovah a brother is like askin' for chains." Instead the men take it upon themselves to run the drug dealer out of the neighborhood.

I'm not endorsing vigilantism, but the point is if you are going to take the attitude that we keep everything inside our own community, then we have to take responsibility to keep our community together.

The Catholic Church tried to keep hidden numerous instances of child sex abuse by its priests — for decades, maybe centuries. But while they covered up they took no effective steps to stop it.

The same thing goes for the black community. You can call it Chocolate City and cling to the political power blacks have in Detroit, but the city has fallen down around us. We've let young people glorify gangsterism. Rappers call each other niggers, bitches and hos so much that any white person can justify calling us by the same pejoratives. You can't have it both ways.

In fact, you can't have it the "it's our own private thing" way at all in today's society. The black community is not as geographically centralized as it once was. We work in all kinds of settings. And we have to participate fully in the public domain if we expect to have justice for ourselves.

Bill Cosby crossed the "what goes on in the black community stays in the black community" line a couple of years ago when he told blacks to stop blaming the white man for our problems. While some people felt he gave whites an excuse for racism, more and more black leaders are saying we have to clean up or own house. And that means owning up to our problems as well as our successes.

"If you write honestly about anything, there will be embarrassing things, because no community is perfect and no human being is perfect," says Britt, who is on book leave from the Post. "I don't know how you can be an authentic journalist without noting the wonderful and the awful."

Nobody wants the bad things about themselves to be known. Sometimes we're successful at keeping those secrets, although, if you're really bad, it's going to come out sooner or later.

Most of us feel a little bit more relaxed when we are among blacks. We feel we can do what we want to without being scrutinized or chastised for it. We felt like we can ... be black. We should be able to be black wherever we are. However, being black doesn't mean holding other blacks in line. Saying, for instance, they are trying to act white because they speak well or achieve at school.

Being black can be anything. And that's why you can't hold it in.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]

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