MAXWELL:  An ugly truth about young black males

2/19/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


On the night of Jan. 29, Yellow Cab Co. driver Wilford Hutchinson, along with his friend Yetta Richter who was riding in the front seat, picked up two fares on a street in this city’s southwest. Hutchinson was wary because the fares were young black males who had been vague about their location.

After getting in the back seat, the two men grabbed Hutchinson and Richter around their necks. Hutchinson floored the accelerator, driving as fast as 80 mph on a busy residential road. Richter hit one of the men on the head with a bottle. Hutchinson stopped the cab, and the two assailants ran off into the darkness.

Ordinarily, such an incident would have received scant media attention. Instead, it has become a national cause celebre for race relations because Yellow Cab manager Dan McCarthy, who is white, disclosed that Hutchinson, who is black, had violated a company policy of not picking up young black males who call without giving a specific address.

Gainesville’s black leaders attacked McCarthy’s policy as racist and called for a boycott of the company. Adding to McCarthy’s woes, city officials threatened to revoke Yellow Cab’s license after learning that, not only had McCarthy violated three ordinances that require any cab company with available vehicles to pick up a fare, but he also had failed to keep the company’s permits and fees current. But through an agreement, which included McCarthy’s public apology to the black community, Yellow Cab continues to operate.

Everything in the case underscores an ugly truth that most blacks deny and one that most whites are afraid to discuss: Young black males are feared because of the disproportionate number of violent street crimes they commit or are perceived to commit.

Unfortunately, in Gainesville, perception is reality. The police and the sheriff’s office state that all six cab robberies or attempted cab robberies on record during the last two years were committed by young black males. Former city commissioner and Florida Martin Luther King Commission Director Rodney Long, while trying to portray McCarthy as a villain, unwittingly revealed how illogical blacks are about black crime.

“If we have a problem with African-American males or another part of our community, we should work with law enforcement,” Long said. “We don’t need to indict a whole community. Even if the statistics justify it, (McCarthy) should not hold the rest of the community hostage.”

Long, like many other African-Americans, nearly always identifies the wrong hostage, the wrong victim, the wrong perpetrator. Yes, black communities nationwide are being held hostage, but not just by companies like Yellow Cab. Young black males are holding their communities hostage.

Statistics speak for themselves: White people are not gunning down young black males. White people are not selling dope to black children in our neighborhood schools. White people are not invading and robbing black homes. White people are not harassing workers in fast food businesses in black neighborhoods. And white people are not sticking up the black mom-and-pop store on the corner. Black residents are being victimized by black predators _ their own children.

In Gainesville, many working-class blacks ride Yellow Cab to and from work because the company keeps its rates affordable. If its license had been revoked, the good people would have suffered. The fear of young black males has also caused the city’s pizza-delivery firms and other service-oriented companies to stay away from most black areas. Again, decent people and their families are the losers when such services are disrupted.

Instead of wasting our time blaming the businesses, we had better learn that, by our own behavior, we _ those with the least amount of liberty _ are giving others entirely too much justification to seize the most basic of our freedoms. By our own behavior, we are shrinking the turf on which we can conduct our affairs without having our motives questioned. Each time a young black puts a gun to a cab driver’s head, we squander a freedom. Each time a young black male robs a convenience store, our world gets smaller.

Businesses are deserting our neighborhoods. They are scared to death of crime. When business is scared, our freedoms and conveniences dry up. And some of the most tragic victims of black crime are struggling black merchants in predominantly black areas who cannot get insurance and commercial loans. Racism aside, these businesses are hurt by the very people they try to serve.

Like African-Americans everywhere, I am outraged by the country’s stereotypes of us. I, too, cannot walk into a store without feeling the glare of a security guard, without white women grabbing their purses and locking their car doors when I approach. I, too, endure the daily slights and insults. And, yes, I am angry. I am angry because, although I have never mugged anyone or raped a woman or shoplifted, white people fear me.

I am mad as hell, but not at white people. I am mad at my own people who are the real source of the stereotypes, the homies who reinforce the negative images that define the rest of us. I resent being defined by these immature youngsters. I detest their actions and words that already have turned my 3-year-old grandson into an American demon.

In a recent article for the Miami Herald, titled “Why the fear of young black men?” Elijah Anderson, a professor of social sciences and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, paints a stark portrait of the black male’s relationship to American society:

“The demonization of young black men threatens to create a dangerous situation where black men are defined and treated as a lawless, outsider class, apart from civilized society. This may further impede their ability to participate in many aspects of normal life, including employment and education. Law-abiding citizens may decide that these men, because of their outsider status, have no moral claim on wider institutions and are deemed unworthy of participation in American society.”

Gainesville’s Yellow Cab situation manifests the truth of Anderson’s observations. Increasingly, young black men in this city are being separated from mainstream society. They are scaring people to death. And business people, like McCarthy, are creating rules to protect their interests. His is a natural reaction to a real source of fear.

We, black males, have the power to change our self-destructive relationship with greater society. How? By changing ourselves.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.