Clayton Mitchell -- The Social Deficit: The Other American Downgrade

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By Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr.

As reported in The Washington Times on August 8, 2011, “[Philadelphia] Mayor Michael A. Nutter telling marauding black youths ‘you have damaged your own race,’ imposed a tougher curfew…in response to the latest ‘flash mob’ — spontaneous groups of teens who attack people at random on the streets of the city’s tourist and fashionable shopping districts. ‘Take those God-darn hoodies down, especially in the summer,’ Mr. Nutter, the city’s third black mayor, said in an angry lecture aimed at black teens. ‘Pull your pants up and buy a belt ‘cause no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt…. If you walk into somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, and your shoes untied, and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arms and on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you? They don’t hire you ‘cause you look like you’re crazy,’ the mayor said.”

I take issue with Mayor Nutter’s statements. Not because his message lacked merit, but because he inequitably assigns blame to only one group of individuals. For Mayor Nutter to only target Philadelphia “black teens” wrongly sends a signal to the general public that the current social mores problem in the United States only pertains to urban African-American youth. This is patently unfair.
On the weekends after Standard & Poor’s lowered the United States’ credit rating, I happened to be out shopping and people watching. The one striking thing I noticed is that this country looks nothing like how it is portrayed on television. At the shopping mall, at theatres, at the airport, in church and in the workplace, many Americans of all races and age groups generally look like (there is no other polite way to say it) complete slobs.

With few exceptions, everywhere I looked was a parade of adult men wearing ragged shorts and ten-year-old faded T-shirts, adult women wearing dirty flip flops and sweatpants, and numerous young adults and teenagers sporting backwards baseball caps and ostentatious canvases of tattoos that would make urban graffiti artists jealous. At the food court, people gorged on fast food while simultaneously talking, texting and using a cacophony of “F” words with uninhibited abandon. To summarize, many people – white, black, old and young - looked like they were mowing the lawn, not having a day out on the town.

What happened to American civility and decency? Are we so accepting of our newly found mediocrity that we no longer feel the need to aspire to self-respect and high moral character? Or is our self-esteem so low that we need to express our malaise without a modicum of care regarding our dress and manner of speaking?

A portion of the blame is appropriated to a lack of adequate parenting. There was a time when parents made young men and women develop the habit of grooming themselves before going out and demanded that they wear their “Sunday clothes” to formal social events. Many of us remember our parents telling us, “You’re not going anywhere looking like that!” when we defiantly tried to wear unsuitable clothes to school. Our parents taught us to say “excuse me” and “thank you” in the course of polite social interaction. If we neglected to use good manners (especially with adults) our parents would swiftly impose sanctions.

Over the past twenty years, “Casual Fridays” have morphed from a once a week relaxation of formal workplace dress codes to a license to wear loungewear in the workplace all of the time. The national language of the 21st Century - Slang - is regularly spoken by more Americans than English or Spanish (ya know what I’m sayin’).

I recognize that there is a time and a place for everything. However, the manner in which we conduct and present ourselves at play, in public and at work sets a tone with those that we interact and dictates how others treat us in turn. Look all around you the next time you are at a shopping mall, in a restaurant or at work and you will find that the implied message currently being sent loud and clear from the American culture to the world is “we don’t give a damn”…and we wonder why the rest of the civilized world views us with disdain. Are we Americans so socially impoverished that we can no longer expect the populace to conform to customary appropriate standards of dress and courteous conduct?

If we want to regain our stature in the world we not only have to get our fiscal house in order – we have to get our social house in order. That applies to middle-aged white people as much as it does to Philadelphia African-American teenagers. With a little shared sacrifice, this is a deficit that can be promptly cured. I am sure Mayor Nutter would agree.

Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr. is an attorney in Stevensville and regular contributor to Center Maryland.
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