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two cents from cyberland

It’s no secret that I like to work with kids. I started something over a year ago, and will probably continue to do so until I begin active duty. It’s not terribly difficult work, and it keeps me moving about and on my toes. Besides, most of being a camp counselor, or even keeping track of an afterschool program, is fun.

It’s also in the public record that I live in New England, which tends to be a fairly ethnically homogenous area. So, in any given group of kids, maybe 1 or 2 in 30 will be black, a rare person of asian descent, and the rest are straight from europe.

Finally, I’d like to say that I hope that I lack racial prejudices; I like to consider myself a modern, enlightened person who judges people on their own merits instead of their skin.

So, why is it that, with rare exceptions, every black kid I’ve ever had to deal with seems to be actively trying to reinforce negative stereotypes? Almost always, they’re the ones who are the troublemakers, the belligerent ones, the ones the counselors warn each other about because they’re hard to deal with? This isn’t to say that there aren’t white kids who act equally poorly, just that–and mind you, I don’t especially like drawing this distinction–the white problem kids (that I’ve met) are only maybe 10% of the population, and the black problem kids tend to be closer to 80 or 90% of the ones I’ve met.

Today was the first day I worked at an elementary school; I’ll be working there for the next three or so weeks. So, the other counselors were telling me about the various kids, who I should look out for, who tends to cry and who’s always getting scraped up. There were several kids who they said would be a handful, but are typically manageable. But as the kids started filing in, only one had his backpack in a garbage bag carried by the guidance counselor, with the accompanying story that he had taken to leaving it about the school in various places because he had discovered that it disrupted classes. The most recent place it was found was in the urinal, damp.

It belonged to the one black kid in the group.

Last summer, as a camp counselor, similar circumstances: a tiny percentage of black kids among the overwhelmingly caucasian majority. Jr. High and High School age kids. I disagreed with many campers, but only one ever tried to start brawling with me. A black kid. Many people complained about the mountains while hiking the appalacian trail, but only one faked an injury to hold us up so he could rest for a while. A (different) black kid. How do I know the injury was faked? He was bragging about it later, on the ride back.

Is it that they feel some compulsion to be the ‘bad boy,’ to be stronger and tougher and more out of control than their peers? Is it some twisted sense of black pride which says that to maintain respect, they’ve got to defy whatever the white guy says?

I wish that I could say I was just leaving out the rowdy white kids, that I was attaching undue focus on the black kids. But that is not the case. And when I look at articles which cry out against the police and judicial system because the prison population is primarily black, I can’t agree. Because their premise is that every person is equally likely to commit a crime, to simply do what they’ve been told not to, but in my experience as a person expected to enforce Authority, the unfortunate truth is that they aren’t.

I hope that there’s some proof, something that I experience in the future which suggests the opposite, that people of every race are equally likely to shine out or be stupid, because right now, with the experiences I’ve had, I have to come to the conclusion that they aren’t. And this flies in the face of everything I’ve been taught in my life about the nature of people and what constitutes right and just behavior and expectations of a person.

When the clerk of a small store watches black people more carefully than whites, I feel honestly sorry for the good people, who feel harassed and put under pressure because they don’t conform to the stereotype; they’re honest. At the same time, for the storekeeper, it’s simply safer to run things that way, and telling him that he shouldn’t do so would be bad advice.

Which leads to a chicken-and-egg type question: if the kids grow up misbehaving because the stereotypes say they should, and the stereotypes grow out of their misbehavior, how on earth do you get them, collectively, to behave? So that the stereotypes go away because they no longer contain a grain of truth?

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