A healthy response to stress, especially that which arises out of insults, continues to be a huge problem for many African Americans. Our children shoot and stab one another because someone looks at them the wrong way, while the rest of us have fits and strokes because some white person said a bad word.
The reaction to remarks made last week by William Bennett, former U.S. education secretary and national drug policy director turned radio talk show host, illuminated our vulnerabilities. But first, a recap of what he said, according to a report in Saturday's Washington Post:
"In response to a caller who suggested that Social Security would be in better shape if abortion were illegal, leaving more people to pay into the system, Bennett cautioned against making such far-reaching arguments and drove home his point by offering what he called 'a noxious hypothetical analogy.' " He said, "You could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down."
Expressions of disgust are understandable. Replace the word "black" with your favorite ethnic or religious group and you can begin to feel the sting.
But African Americans alone seem caught up in a kind of racial Whack-a-Mole game, with adrenal glands conditioned to fire at every slight, even though we know that does no good.
Knock Bennett down one hole, he'll just pop up again in other, always reappearing as some vile yet Important White Man.
During a recent health conference for black men held at Howard University, psychology professor Jules P. Harrell spoke of the "micro-aggressions" that black people endure daily -- such as the comment by Bennett -- but what really kills us, he said, is the anger either denied or impotently expressed, which becomes rage suppressed in hearts that were not designed to withstand that kind of pressure.
Hypertension, leading to heart attack and stroke, is the leading killer of black men in the United States. Even those who eat right, exercise regularly and have 401(k) plans die at higher rates than their white counterparts. "We must cultivate the capacity to reduce arousal on demand," Harrell said.
One suggestion is to step away from the Whack-a-Mole game and survey the entire arcade. The race problem is not just one of individuals; racism manifests itself in structure -- institutional and environmental.
"Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of structural racism in New Orleans," Harrell said.
"And we must develop a language and culture for attacking it. If you look at the hip-hop generation, it's obvious they have no idea. Kanye West shows up on a hurricane relief telethon and all he can say is, 'George Bush doesn't like black people.' It's not Kanye's fault. Nobody took the time to teach him that this is not about any one white man."
The Post story quoted Robert Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, as saying "it was stupid" for Bennett to make the remark. And he let it go at that. Woodson is the only prominent African American that I know of who barely gave the matter a second thought.
A civil rights activist turned self-styled black conservative, he may disagree with Harrell about the significance of racism, or whether an institutional version even exists, but he does not deny that race is a problem in America. And he will speak out against injustice.
In 1995, Woodson quit as scholar-in-residence at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute after the publication of "End of Racism" by AEI fellow Dinesh D'Souza.
After slamming the book as a denigration of black culture, Woodson said, "Dinesh D'Souza is the Mark Fuhrman of public policy," referring to the white former Los Angeles police detective at the center of controversy in the O.J. Simpson case for his alleged history of using racial epithets.
So what is beneath his comparably cool response to Bennett's comments?
"I just think a lot of people who express outrage are practicing a kind of hypocrisy," Woodson said in a telephone interview. Rapper Snoop Dogg "can denigrate black culture and be recommended for an NAACP Image Award."
Woodson calls that "moral inconsistency," a hole in the soul of black America that both he and Harrell agree has weakened us spiritually and politically and left our immune system compromised.
Read more about this breach, and how to heal it, in Wednesday's column.