Dear Dr. Poussaint:
I am white. I was raised in a small New England town and didn't see or meet a black person until I left for college at age 18. I attended a private and expensive university during the early 1960s and the black people I encountered were upper-income, highly educated people. We mixed freely and when I heard of racism, I thought it was a product of warped minds.
All of that changed when I moved to Washington, D.C. Being attracted to urban life, I lived in the city. For the first time, I encountered blacks of lower and middle income.
With the lower income class, I learned to fear for my life. The middle income blacks I encountered were for the most part one generation removed from low income and had an innate distrust of whites.
To be perfectly candid, I have no fond feelings for either group, primarily because they give off feelings of at best disliking or at worst hating me as a white. The rather uncomfortable realization for me is that I find myself distrusting all blacks, which, I guess, marks me as a racist.
I expect them to dislike me. I'm very cautious of letting a full relationship develop. In fact, there is only one black person with whom I have a relationship that extends beyond work. I have never felt free to express to her my honest feelings such as I have written here.
My deep down attitude is that I deal with a black person when the situation calls for it, but other than that, I restrict myself to white associates. It's based on the assumption that with a black person the odds are much greater of my being hurt or rejected and it's not worth the trouble.
I enjoy and respect your opinions as expressed in your column and wonder if you have any thoughts about my attitudes and how they evolved. P. C., Washington, D.C. Dear P. C.:
Your candid letter is appreciated because it is through such honest exchange that we can come to grips and perhaps resolve the psychological dynamics associated with racism.
Your attitudes reflect a mixture of class and racial prejudices which may be at times difficult to separate but can still be lethal in their impact. On the surface it appears thatyou are stressing the class differences, implying that you would have no prejudice toward blacks from upper class backgrounds. I doubt, however, that that is the case because you generalize too freely and narrowly about blacks of any class.
Apparently, to you," upper income, highly educated" blacks are all decent people with values and a lifestyle similar to your own. Of course, this isn't necessarily true.
Many upper middle class blacks may have differences in lifestyle which reflect their black heritage. In fact, many of the militant, activist blacks may come from such backgrounds and presumably can be as frightening to you as many low income blacks. Would you be more comfortable with an upper class black who spoke about revolution against the white majority or angrily labelled you a white racist? I doubt it.
You also seem to have strong stereotypes about low income blacks whom you apparently view as violence-prone criminals. Yet many whites in your class will hire these very same "ghetto" types as gardeners, maids and chauffeurs. Clearly there are the good and bad among low income blacks regardless of their social conditions.
Do you know that most black crime is intraracial? You are less likely to be attacked by a black than you think. You should be assured that many of the low income blacks that you fear have sons, daughters, sisters and other relatives who are probably attending the private and expensive university you mentioned in your letter. So you must be careful about your generalizations.
You depict middle income blacks as nouveau riche and anti-white. Where did you get such impressions? Most of the black government officials in Washington would be in this category. Certainly most of them are not white-hating, contemptible bourgeoisie. You aren't giving yourself a chance to see blacks as individuals with a wide range of diversity and values.
Do you hold similar negative stereotypes about low income and middle income whites? If you do, you are classifiable as a snob and a racist (your own label for yourself). If you don't view whites in this way, then it's clear that most of your attitudes toward blacks are the result of racial prejudice.
Let down your guard, mingle, and get to know some blacks of your own choice. Although there are barriers to overcome, there is no reason why you can't develop a trusting relationship with a black person who shares your interests. But you must continue to resolve your prejudices or you will drive your potential black friends away.
Alvin F. Poussaint and James P. Comer are psychiatrists and the authors of the book "Black Child Care." Dr. Poussaint is associate professor of psychiatry and associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Comer is professor of child psychiatry and associate dean for student affairs at Yale University School of Medicine.