WE DON'T mean to, but it's human nature to generalize -- to label people by their backgrounds or physical characteristics or religious beliefs or political philosophies. We don't mean to, but all of us at one time or another leap to assumptions from generalizations.
Dan Quayle is no different.
When the vice president decries a "poverty of values" in America's inner cities, many white Americans nod their heads. The assumption is African Americans don't care that their neighborhoods are overrun by drug dealers who sweet-talk lazy young ladies into becoming single mothers. Yes, the assumption is blacks don't care -- except to blame government for their ills.
Well, here's what 750 black Americans -- in a recent survey sponsored by the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies and by Home Box Office -- had to say:
Stop stereotyping and listen to us! We're about as tough on criminals and as sick of welfare as you are!
Granted, this poll was not conducted in riot-torn South Central Los Angeles. It's a national survey of a cross-section of African Americans, with 31.4 percent of those polled falling at or near poverty.
And what did this cross-section of black folks think about the Los Angeles riots that conservatives keep pointing to as the evil result of this "poverty of values" and that liberals keep excusing as the evil result of Ronald Reagan's trickle-nowhere policies?
Only 8 percent said the rioters in L.A. were justified. Yet to hear conservative talking heads on radio and television, you would think most every black person was in solidarity with the bros in L.A.
And what about drugs or welfare?
Seventy-three percent of those polled like mandatory sentences for drug dealers. And 88 percent favor evicting public housing tenants caught with drugs. Since this poll included poor blacks who live in high-crime areas, this support for tough law-and-order was especially telling about their values. And 58 percent want to limit welfare benefits for single mothers who keep having babies on the dole.
Also, an overwhelming majority back programs promoted by conservatives, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp -- programs that some liberals in Congress keep resisting. The programs include allowing people to buy up their public housing units so they can take control of their neighborhoods.
Why, 83 percent said President Bush's "educational choice" plan, which would offer government help to pay private school tuition, would "help poor children gain access to a better education."
Eighty-three percent -- and yet most of those polled said they had never heard of "choice." However, once the proposal was explained briefly, only 13 percent said Bush's plan was "just a way for wealthy parents to have the government pay their children's private school tuitions."
What blacks are saying they want -- indeed, what they deserve -- is a crime-free community that offers the same education and job training that kids in the suburbs can get.
At least 91 percent of African Americans polled said they want more job training, better schools, drug treatment, health insurance and child care so that people can lift themselves out of poverty. Sounds to me their values are in the right place.
The good news for Mr. Quayle, then, is that black Americans share his concern over values. The bad news for blacks is that the vice president still doesn't understand that those values can't flourish if government keeps denying these communities the basic necessities that white folks take for granted.
Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.