Monday, August 15, 1977

The Mind of the North

The summer of 1977 will be remembered for one of those moments of self-jarring self-revelation that come to a people from time to time. The New York blackout, and the looting that accompanied it, were memorably disturbing events.

“Animals” was the most-quoted word used by New Yorkers to describe the looters. Others included “rabble,” “parasites” and “piranha.”

The message conveyed by those epithets was not subtle. Everyone understood that they were about race. (As in blacks are animals).

George Will, a columnist ordinarily notable for his sensitivity and sophistication, drew from the blackout looting the proposition that “The United States has within its urban population many people who lack the economic abilities and character traits necessary for life in a free and lawful society.”

Of course it is true that there are bad citizens in this country. But they are not limited to New York, or to urban areas, or to the poor. If there is anything that the terrible recent history of mankind should have taught us, it is the danger of generalized statements suggesting the culpability of particular classes or groups.

A widespread comment in the New York situation has been that the poor in the ghettos are a feckless lot. “They give nothing and expect everything,” one letter writer put it.

Least of all is bigotry likely to produce peace. It is honest to recognize that blacks in our major cities have special disabilities, the expectable result of a history of slavery and segregation and dislocation. But contempt is no answer. The North will have to learn what the American South did in our lifetime: that bringing the excluded minority into our society is right for reasons not of altruism but of self-interest.

excerpt from Anthony Lewis NYT 8/15/77

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