When the Area D Community Mental Health Center kicked off its Community Conferences last Friday, two Washington Post staff writers asked to go. Both were intrigued by local psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing's topic, "Black Male and Female Relations in a White Supremacy System and Culture."
They returned with distinctly different impressions of the conference, hence twin columns.
Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, child psychiatrist, self-appointed lecturer on genetics and firebrand extraordinaire, is best known in these parts for her ideas on the origin of racism, views which she as espoused at length for the last 10 years, and which she says have cost her two jobs, one of them at Howard Universtiy.
Her topic for last Friday's three-hour talk was "Black Male and Female Relations in a White Supremacy System and Culture." Actually, her discussion was a review of her now notorious views on racial disharmony, known as her "Cress Theory." The Cress Theory says that Western civilization -- what she called "white supremacy culture" -- is an organized response to white people's unhappiness and dismay at discovering not only that they lack skin color but also that they comprise only one-tenth of the world's population.
"It is deep inside the collective of white men to worry about whether it is going to survive," she told an enthusiastic audience, slowly emphasizing each word. She added that the white race's survival paranoia focuses especially upon black men because they have the power to force the spread of all those dominant black genes.
Scribbling vigorously, she filled one blackboard and then another with simple equations like "Arab men (brown) + oil inflation." "How do (whites) organize education, employment, entertainment, religion, sex and war -- how do (they) organize in all these areas so we wind up with white gentic survival?" she demanded, leading her audience to the big punch line: The white gene survival machine. It designs all kinds of crimes against blacks -- it fosters a genetic "urge to lynch" in whites, it "programs" blacks into everything from homosexuality to matriarchal families and carrying those big box radios.
She drew more than one "Preach it, sister," and "Thank you, tell it," from the guidance-hungry audience.
Perhaps her historical lapses -- the notion that white people's guns were fashioned to resemble (black) penises, for example -- stuck in a few people's ears. "Well, maybe she did go a little far out on the symbolism," said a young man named Willie, who was otherwise clapping enthusiastically.
And perhaps her prescriptions for black male and female problems sounded somewhat odd. Notable was her suggestion that blacks build self-asteem by admitting to themselves that they are "nothing but zeros in this country. When I can accept my own zeroness I can calm down and say I understand what you're under," she said, which seems to contradict a psychoanalytic principle or two.
But maybe it was just that Welsing's ideas were so comfortingly simple, entirely too reminiscent of a few formerly widely held ideas on black behavior patterns. Was it so long ago, after all, that is was sociologically fashionable to suggest that blacks condemn themselves to poverty by an inability to delay gratification? Was it so long ago that the tie to Mother Africa -- her climate, whatever -- explained everything about blacks from their homicides to their spirituals? I can't buy that there is a genetic "urge" to lynch any more than I can that a black child is "programmed" to stap on a boogy box.
Simplistic theories can be dangerous, particularly in the face of the bewildering complexity of the 1980s, where problems of the most intricate and intractable nature arise at every hand, and seem to require solutions formulated with a skill, sophistication and subtlety that are all the more necessary as they appear all the more difficult to come by.
Most unfortunately, they remove responsibility for change and for growth to some unknown, presumably white power. When she pointed to a clump of black men and said, "you're being programmed to do what you do," a chorus of male voices said, "Thank you, Thank You!" During the question session, a solitary black woman said plaintively, "You're leaving me without any options. What do you want me to do?" We were all told "we can't begin to deal with that issue until we begin to understand the dynamics of the white supremacy system." Even the good doctor, who has claimed to have all our problems figured out, didn't have a ready answer.
Toward the end of her talk, Welsing scribbled on the board in a tiny hand her "homework" for black self-respect. People hurried to borrow slips of paper to copy it down. In a shaky hand she wrote, "stop squabbling, stop fighting, stop gossiping, stop snitching on one another, stop robbing," and so on to the end of the board. "I wonder," said a woman sitting nearby me, "how many lives she will change this week?"