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Chinese Get the Wrong Message About Blacks

* Racism: Their visit results in an inadvertent lesson about American society.

July 30, 1998|MADISON T. SHOCKLEY II | The Rev. Madison T. Shockley II is pastor of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, United Church of Christ, in Mid-City Los Angeles. He is a member of Mobilization for the Human Family: A Progressive Christian Movement

A recent photograph in The Times reminded me of Camille Cosby's statement that Americans taught her son's killer how to feel about blacks. The picture showed three Chinese industrialists encountering a black homeless woman on Fifth Street in downtown Los Angeles. Their looks of pity and indifference spoke volumes.

"So this is how foreigners learn about black people," I said to myself.

Volunteers from the Executive Service Corps, a group of retired executives, were teaching Chinese industrial managers how to modernize the Chinese economy and help its transition from socialism to capitalism. Much to the credit of the organizers, they believed that showing their foreign guests the negative human consequences of a capitalistic, market-driven economy was a good idea. So the volunteers took the visitors to skid row to show them dislocated, marginalized people and some of the ways that a compassionate society provides relief for them. It's obvious that the volunteers were well-intentioned.

However, what these businessmen neglected to ask was what were they teaching the Chinese visitors about African Americans. I am sure these volunteers would be alarmed at the idea of spreading bad news about African Americans around the globe. But that's exactly what they were doing.

Consider that during their three-month visit, the Chinese managers were taken to the headquarters of several major Southern California corporations, among them Boeing, Unocal and Xerox; I'm sure there were few blacks at any of them. Then consider that they spent their evenings in the Palos Verdes, Beverly Hills and Valley homes of these retired executives; few blacks there, I'm sure. Further consider that their lectures and presentations, which were held at USC, were conducted by professors and industry types; probably few if any blacks there.

Then, finally, consider that they were taken to skid row to see rehabilitation services for drug addicts and mentally ill, homeless and otherwise helpless individuals; I'm sure there were plenty of blacks there.

Without a racist word being spoken or a disparaging remark being made, these foreigners had learned that African Americans do not participate in the industrial segment of our capitalist economy but are marginalized, helpless and homeless people. Can you imagine the message that will be sent to the Chinese business community when these visitors return home with the trophy of a prominently played newspaper picture?

Such images and messages regarding the pathologies that plague African Americans are so deeply woven into the fabric of American life and culture that the subliminal lessons taught are often unacknowledged. Yet they have a power and an endurance that is intractable. The information communicated, albeit silently, is bound to be distorted abroad.

If Chinese commercial forces fulfill their international potential, I would hate to think what role people of African descent would have in such an economy.

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