Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel at Home.
The publication of books about the race problem in America often seems as ceaseless as the problem itself. In a way that is a pity, since each new book has a harder time standing out from the pack than the last--and Deborah Mathis' new book, Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel at Home, should be read by a lot of people, as soon as possible.
Mathis, a syndicated columnist, writes as a black American who embraces both halves of the term, who is deeply proud of being black, who believes in the principles of equality on which the United States was founded, and who, as a result, is appalled at the obstacles to progress experienced daily by blacks in a country they helped to build. It is one thing to have, as most of us do, the general sense that racism is an active force working against blacks as a people; it is another thing to encounter cold facts that support that view. Mathis mixes such facts with pithy anecdotes and a highly readable style to paint a picture of America as a place with a long way to go to establish a level playing field.
Citing sources that include the FBI, the ACLU, and a coalition of youth-advocacy groups, Mathis reports that "while blacks represent 13 percent of monthly drug users, they make up 37 percent of drug arrests" A young, black first-time lawbreaker is six times more likely to be jailed than his white counterpart; and although whites commit 57 percent of violent crimes in the U.S., blacks make up 55 percent of the nation's two million inmates. She also writes that black professional men earn 21 percent less than similarly educated and experienced white men, and that for women the disparity stands at 40 percent. Black homebuyers, she states, "are two to four times more likely to be rejected for conventional mortgage loans than are whites" The list goes on.
Statistics tell only half of any story; Mathis discusses these statistics and the attitudes that produce them, in terms of their effects on black people.
She describes, for example, the dilemma of a black mother caught between not wanting to squelch her child's identity and creativity and not wanting a cop to crack open the child's head because it is adorned with dreadlocks. She also sheds light on the soul-withering quality of "the look," the expressions on the faces of many white store managers, restaurant workers and others that tell black people they are not welcome.
In light of all this, Mathis attempts to explain black attitudes that are mysterious to some nonblacks. If her explanation doesn't make clear why many reasonable black people felt a certain satisfaction at O.J. Simpson's acquittal, then nothing will.
Mathis' solution for making the black community a stronger presence in America is for blacks to pool resources and to follow the seven principles of Kwanzaa: "unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith."
The author's desire for unity among blacks leads to her one misstep. In condemning American society's tendency to punish displays of black cultural pride and reward the opposite, Mathis attacks black people who "conform to white standards" and "pride themselves on `independence'" Because she does not identify these "compliant, submissive ... imitators" of "majority rule" or describe exactly what they do that is so offensive, we are left to guess who and what she means. Maybe for that reason, her excoriation of blacks who think and act differently from "the rest of us" feels uncomfortably close to the attitudes she spends the rest of the book lamenting.
Mathis has nonetheless written a powerful and necessary book. Yet a Stranger will make readers want to put aside trivial activities, turn off that computer game, leave that thirteenth viewing of The Godfather for another day and spend some time thinking about ways to improve things. It would be hard for one book to accomplish more than that.
--Clifford Thompson is an essayist, fiction writer and editor of Current Biography.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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