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Whites Only Let Blacks Nibble at Edges of Power : Race relations: Age-old prejudices of the majority choke off minority opportunities.

<i> CLIFFORD L. ALEXANDER, former secretary of the Army, gave testimony on Tuesday to a Senate committee studying the plight of black men. Here are excerpts from his comments:</i>

Your hearings earlier this year focused on the problems that black males face today in the United States of America. Since that time, a new Urban Institute report has underlined the magnitude of the problem. That report shows that equally qualified white and black young men had totally unequal experiences when they applied for jobs. In fact, the white man received three times as many offers as equally qualified black men. This exposes the problems we must face today.

First and foremost, this statement is about what you as white people think about us. White America continues to paint pictures of black America that determine our opportunities. You see us as less than you are. You think that we are not as smart, not as energetic, not as well suited to supervise you as you are to supervise us, that we are looking for something extra--a government program that gives us something we do not deserve.

You think that our sons and daughters are taking the places in colleges that, if the world were only “fair,” would go to your white children instead. And yes, if you see a black man, you think that you had better cross the street before something bad happens to you. These are the ways you perceive us, and your perceptions are negative. They are fed by motion pictures, ad agencies, news people and television. If you want to show “clean,” “brave” and “reverent"--color it white. If it is “shiftless,” “crime-ridden” and “overcrowded"--color that black.

Creative white America has fed us those negative stereotypes since the days of the the “Stepin Fetchit” movies, and (Sen.) Jesse Helm’s political advertisements perpetuate these insults today.

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This is about what you think about us. When you were young, the racial stereotypes projected by ad agencies, decades of movies and television told you--and they still tell your children today--that we are less than you. Because of the negative perceptions that you have accepted about black men, when you decide where to live or whom to hire, those black men become the people whom you most want to avoid.

White men and women can develop the solutions, therefore it is somewhat ironic that I am speaking about this issue today in the most prestigious segregated body in America--the United States Senate.

Black men can only nibble at the edges of power in America. Yes, we are better off than we were 30 years ago. But then so are you. The economic relationship between black and white is the same as it was in the early 1960s. A black family still earns only $57 to every white family’s $100--about the same as they did in 1961. We can eat in most restaurants, play golf at some private clubs and attend the best schools--albeit in small numbers. Yes, we are only nibbling at the edges--and you are the reason why.

During my lifetime, no black person will join your exclusive Senate club, run a Fortune 500 company, be president of NBC, CBS, CNN or ABC. No black person will become president of an Ivy League school, or be head of the Kennedy Center. You are determined to reserve those powerful positions for your own kind. Yes, we nibble at the edges while you enjoy hearty meals.

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Now what can you as individuals or as a body do to make this country a place of true opportunity for black men--and women, too?

First, you can set a good example. Whenever you are invited to a meeting, inquire whether the luncheon club or country club where it is to be held discriminates against Jews, Latinos, Asians, blacks or women. If it does discriminate, do not attend the meeting, and tell the person who issued the invitation why you have declined. If we are good enough to die for America in the Persian Gulf, you should be good enough to discourage the bigots who keep us out of those clubs where so many major decisions are made right here at home.

Continue to examine legislation that is intended to promote fairness in the workplace. The laws now rely too much on the federal courts and not nearly enough on speedy administrative remedies to correct acts of employment discrimination. Remember that the answers to these problems lie within white America. You are just as creative as we are. Don’t always look to your “black experts.”

Remember, each of you has an excellent public forum here in America from which you can address the unfair negative perceptions about blacks. I know that you have given the so-called black speech at Urban League dinners. But your time would be far better spent giving a speech on equal employment opportunity to the Economic Club of Detroit or Dallas.

Each of you should also look at your own staff. Are all of those who now hold positions of authority white men who look, walk and talk like you? Are you setting the proper example for the rest of America? Do you have minority men and women who work on a variety of issues, ranging from agriculture to defense, or do they only plan your infrequent meetings with black leaders?

Encourage black businesses. When I was secretary of the Army, minority business with the Department of the Army increased over four years from $98 million to $1 billion. The entire government needs to make that kind of advancement. The Department of Defense, however, has ignored your own legislative mandate regarding minority businesses. Do you accept this failure because it concerns minority business? I certainly hope not.

You should remember that we all need to recognize the reasons that we have these problems before we can develop programmatic solutions. When I was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than 20 years ago, our studies determined that at least 75% of the time, plain old prejudice was the reason that black men and women received lesser job opportunities and fewer promotions. Today’s studies show the same thing.

You must face your prejudices. White America must reeducate itself--and then move on from there. You should spend days, weeks, even months of your time addressing those prejudices and setting out ways to correct both misperceptions and inequalities.

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White America needs to turn sweet talk into fast action. It is up to you.


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