COLUMN ONE : Stereotype That Won’t Go Away : Young black males find themselves continually under scrutiny from police and public. ‘Until you’re black, until you get pulled over . . . you’ll never understand,’ one says.
The way DeShon Andrews tells it, he and a buddy walked into a Belgian waffle shop in a Torrance shopping mall one morning last year to have breakfast. It was a place where they frequently ate. The rest of the mall was closed.
The two young men ordered breakfast. The owner went out briefly and returned with a security guard who stood by the cash register. Then, after Andrews and his friend had eaten and paid, the guard followed them out of the restaurant.
“He followed us all the way to our car in the parking lot,” Andrews said bitterly.
To Andrews, a civilian employee in the Los Angeles Police Department, there could have been only one reason, the same reason that continually complicates his life: He is 22 years old and black, the only ingredients needed to qualify for what is perhaps America’s most negative stereotype--the young black criminal.
For thousands of young black men like Andrews, who hold jobs or go to college--who in some cases grew up in high-crime neighborhoods but resisted the temptations of street life--the stereotype means that all your diligence counts for nothing when you cross the invisible line that separates black communities from the rest of Los Angeles.
Outside a black neighborhood, these young men say, the stereotype they struggled so hard to evade reclaims them. They are often regarded as potential criminals: Women clutch their purses tighter. Drivers push the automatic door-locking button of their cars. Supermarket clerks ask for an extra ID or call their manager before they cash a young black man’s check.
“It’s not fair. It’s a stupid life break,” said Kevin Johnson, 20, who was born in South-Central Los Angeles, raised in Ladera Heights--a primarily black middle-class neighborhood--and is a junior at Xavier University in New Orleans, where he is studying to be a psychiatrist.
“Why should I be discriminated against?” asked Johnson, who is now home for summer break. “It’s like I have an ‘X’ over my body that’s poison or something. I’m made to feel like I don’t even deserve to be in a nice mall or a nice street.”
The stereotype hardened a week ago, when a report by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office estimated that 47% of all black men in the county between the ages of 21 and 24 belong to gangs.
The figure was at least twice as high as previous estimates that had attempted to compare census data and black gang membership. Although community leaders, gang workers and even Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said the district attorney’s estimate seemed exaggerated, many broadcast news reports picked up only the statistic. Late last week, officials acknowledged that flaws in law enforcement databases may have led to a substantial overestimation.
Initial accounts of the report outraged many blacks, who complained that it would encourage more discriminatory treatment by whites.
“We go to work and they (whites) take it (fear of blacks) out on us,” a 29-year old man named Carl from Hawthorne complained last week on the morning call-in show on KJLH, a black-owned FM radio station that broadcasts from the Crenshaw district. “It’s hard for us to be trusted, it’s hard for us to be promoted, it’s hard for us to work around the money. There’s a lot of good black people, but they (whites) . . . have got to realize there are a lot of us catching it” for the sins of gang members.
For decades, blacks have complained about unjustified traffic stops by law enforcement officers that would never be tolerated by whites. Tales abound of decent citizens forced to lie in the street or sit on the curb while police search a supposedly stolen car that turns out to be clean.
College student Johnson tells of being stopped by police at gunpoint one night as he walked up to a party at a home in Hollywood and being questioned suspiciously about the Mercedes he had just parked. It was his mother’s.
More subtle, but just as humiliating, are the moments in public places, when--in front of other people--young men who fit “the profile” simply because of their race and age are subjected to additional scrutiny.
“With police, I know I’m just another black face. That’s their mentality,” said Sharroky Hollie, 24, who has a master’s degree in education and teaches English at Poly High School in Sun Valley. “But in public, if I’m in a department store, and I have my stuff, that’s where fair treatment should show its best. But instead, when it comes to my check, they call upstairs. It’s really frustrating. I’m not a gangbanger.
“I used to work as a messenger downtown. I’d walk into an elevator, me and a white woman, and you could literally see her fist clench her purse. It doesn’t bother me anymore, but when it first happened I’d go: Why?”
Johnson said he encountered a similar reaction two weeks ago inside a fancy hotel near Los Angeles International Airport.
“I was with three friends. We were looking for my girlfriend’s room on the sixth floor. We took a glass elevator, and we could see they had security guards watching us. It was 8, maybe 9 o’clock at night. They followed us around. I was pretty upset.”
The fact that this experience cuts across income and class lines has contributed to a widespread belief among middle-class blacks that the Los Angeles riots, although tragic, were an understandable expression of outrage at a racist society.
The racial slights encompass what Andrew Hacker, author of the recently published “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” calls “the sheer strain of living in a white world, the rage that you (blacks) must suppress almost every day.
“No wonder black Americans, especially black men, suffer so much from hypertension,” writes Hacker, a white professor of political science at Queens College in New York City. “The day-to-day aggravations and humiliations add up bit by bitter bit. . . . At times the conclusion seems all but self-evident that white America has no desire for your presence or any need for your people.”
Being dismissed as a member of the criminal class has been particularly painful to the young blacks who belong to the middle class or aspire to reach it.
Unlike their parents, who were raised in an era in which the inequalities of race dominated public discourse, these men came of age in the 1980s, when race nearly disappeared from the national political agenda. There was an unstated assumption, particularly in white America, that affirmative action programs and civil rights laws had eliminated discrimination.
“I was naive,” said Hollie, who grew up in the Mid-City area and attended an integrated Catholic school that he said was racially harmonious. “When you get out into the larger world, you learn. It wasn’t until I was 19, 20, that I started to put it all together.”
Andrews, the Police Department employee who hopes to become a police officer and earn a law degree, says he struggles to see the issue from both sides. He understands the dilemma officers sometimes face in deciding whether to make a traffic stop. And he says blacks must take responsibility for the high crime rate in black communities.
“I’m as hard on black people as I am on Caucasians,” said Andrews, who was born in South-Central, grew up in a black middle-class neighborhood in Carson and now lives in Hawthorne. “A lot of (blacks) have quit, rather than looking at the man in the mirror and saying: ‘I’m here because I chose to quit school,’ or ‘I’m here because I chose to take drugs.’ ”
Having said all that, he remains galled by the way race shapes his choices.
Four months ago he bought a new black Mustang convertible.
“My mother told me when I bought the Mustang: ‘You know you’re going to get harassed,’ ” he said. “I said: ‘Mama, I’m not gonna let the gang members dictate what I have, and I’m not going to let the police dictate, either.’ ”
Sure enough, he said, he is pulled over more often by police when he drives his new car than when he drives his old one, a Nissan Sentra.
“Until you’re black, until you get pulled over, jacked (subjected to an unjustified search or interrogation by police) for no reason, you’ll never understand,” Andrews said.
Greg Harvey, 24, of Culver City, who has an economics degree from UCLA, said he probably experiences fewer collisions with the young, black male profile because he does not own a car.
“I don’t get out that much. But you see it in a store once in a while,” he said. “It’s very irritating. They (storekeepers) walk up to you: ‘May I help you?’ They hang in the area. I want to say: ‘This is a liquor store. I don’t need any help. I want a six-pack of Bud. I can take it from here.’
“Sometimes it almost makes me laugh,” said Harvey, who was raised in Oregon and Oakland and has lived for several years on the Westside, now with a Korean-American roommate. “I say to myself: ‘Damn, am I that scary?’ But it makes you mad too. It’s part of being black in America.”
Huge racial disparities in criminal statistics have bolstered the stereotype that plagues men like Harvey.
One 1990 study found that nearly one in four blacks between the ages of 20 and 29 is behind bars, on parole or on probation nationwide. Another, published later that year, found that an even higher percentage of California blacks in their 20s--one-third--were under the control of the criminal justice system. By contrast, 5.4% of white male Californians and 9.4% of Latinos were similarly classified.
Ultimately, some young men say, whether it fits or not, coming under the glare of the stereotype becomes a numbing fact of life.
“It isn’t talked about,” Hollie said. “It’s such a normal thing, it’s no news anymore. I’ve been with friends, we’ve been stopped, and we’d drive two, three miles and nobody would talk. Then somebody would turn on the radio and we’d be back to business.”