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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : Making a Difference : Striving to Improve the Quality of Life for All Blacks

February 13, 1989|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

When Dr. Gloria Powell, a black child psychiatrist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, speaks about the troubling disparity between the quality of white and black lives, she often uses a word that whites seldom hear and often have trouble swallowing: Negrophobia, the social science theory that explains discrimination as the result of an innate discomfort whites feel toward blacks. Powell, who specializes in the psychological and social development of minority children, has been a resident of Los Angeles since 1965. She lives in Pacific Palisades. These are excerpts of an interview with Times staff writer Bob Baker.

If you look in the literature about Afro-Americans and the effects of slavery, the view that comes through most resoundingly is the word Negrophobia. In "The American Dilemma," Gunnar Myrdal talks about the conflict between the Negrophobia that is deeply ridden in American society and the goal of achieving total equality and says the handling of the Negro and where to put him has always been a difficult task.

I am struck when I look at the changes since the Watts riots, that we have so many more (public health) buildings, but we don't have the programs or the money for the programs to provide the comprehensive services that the children in that area really need. We have not by and large changed the health picture, the education picture, the social lives.

The contrast for California in terms of the wealth and how it is spent and used and who gets services and who doesn't is very striking to someone like me, who comes from Boston. I grew up on a street called Elbert Street, a little dead-end street in the middle of Roxbury, in a tenement house. My father died when I was 3. We were one of first families to receive funding under a new program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children. The resources that were available to us were extensive: Freedom House, a social services agency, produced a whole host of black youngsters who went on to college. The South End Music School had people from the Boston Symphony Orchestra who would volunteer their time to teach needy youngsters. I think we paid 25 cent a lesson. Every single summer from the time my brother was 7 until he was 17 he was away from Roxbury at a YMCA camp. I belonged to a marvelous Girl Scout troop which allowed us to see all the museums in Boston, all the surrounding communities, plays. It was an expansive experience.

As I sit at a desk in the Kaiser Watts counseling center or the Hawkins Mental Health Center and make my diagnosis, so many times I have wanted to say: "Freedom House, three times a week." Or, "Enroll this kid in a Boys Club and let him learn how to swim." Or, "Send this kid to a class at Boston Teachers College for children who stammer." Or, "Send this kid to South End Music School and let him have some music to develop his self-concept." Besides Kaiser Watt's tutorial center, where are the other tutorial programs we can send this child? Because he's already in third grade and reading at pre-kindergarten level and his report cards have been saying A all the time and the teachers are reporting he's doing work at grade level, and then when he takes the national test, he's in the 22nd percentile. Sit in one of the elementary schools. Go where I go, sit where I sit and you'll see it.

When you look at the way people vote and set their priorities, it's Negrophobia in some respects. Those who have an awful lot and those who don't have exist in larger numbers than we would like to recognize. Those who have don't want to give up anything that they have because you know how they think about it. The fearfulness that if we give "them" too much it would be a mistake.

As a black there's no way you can escape it. If you are Hispanic and learn English very, very well, you can become more amalgamated into society. But for blacks the amalgamation process is much more difficult. It's a constant reminder.

The way the media covers gangs perpetuates this in Los Angeles. Too often they show all the problems of blacks without looking at the ecological factors. Less than 5% of all black kids in L.A. are part of gangs. What happens to the other 95%? Every teacher everywhere the children go will think of them like those black kids they saw on TV. Because in California people are so far from the black community, the only way they know anything about blacks is what they see on TV. So it makes a difference for me with my son. I've had to teach him differently than other people would. I had to say things like, "I know you're driving with so-and-so and so-and-so, but if you get caught by the police, don't make a remark." I didn't like having to expose that part of society to him.

I had an incident in a market once in which the checker wanted my driver's license, which I thought was reasonable, but then he wanted my Social Security number, then the telephone number of my office, and then he wanted to call my boss to verify I worked there. I was furious. I said to my children: "Children, you are observing racism at this very moment. What is happening to Mommy is racist. Watch how I deal with it." I called the manager. He came over and apologized, then took me aside and said, "Dr. Powell, it's kind of rough around here. You would do yourself a favor to put M.D. on your check." I said, "I don't want to advertise I'm a doctor." But eventually I did. I decided I could not fight the battle. And if that saved me that inner psychic energy I needed to challenge somewhere else, then it was worth it.

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