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Your Problem, Not Mine — Until It Is

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Here's another one of my stories about how the personal gets political. You know how it sometimes happens that without planning it, you and your friends wind up doing the same thing around the same time? Well, it so happened that a number of my friends got married around roughly the same time I did, so as you might imagine, we started comparing notes.

One day I decided to check out the wares in the salon of a famous designer I had heard a lot about. Did I say "salon"? I should have said "showroom," although I've had a better time actually buying the proverbial "used car."

The saleslady was pushy and rude. She made no pretense of being interested in what I wanted. No, she was all about what she wanted, which was to get me out of there as soon as possible so she could get her hooks into somebody gullible enough to pay not one but two mortgage payments for a dress to wear one time.

After a while, she asked me, "So are you gonna buy it?"

I got the message. I got out of there and bought a very nice gown from a store where I buy the rest of my clothes, thank you very much.

So I reported all this to a friend of mine who was getting married soon after I was, just as an FYI. Only guess what: She didn't believe me — until the exact same thing happened to her in the exact same store.

I'll translate this for you. She evidently thought I was having a black girl retail moment that didn't have anything to do with her blond self. Until it did.

Can I just tell you? It's a small story that illustrates a larger truth: That what happens to a few folks very often is the prelude to what will happen to the many, except the many often don't want to think so until it's too late.

African-American elders used to have jokes about this. They'd call themselves the canaries in the coal mine, among other things, except that it has proven true too often to be funny.

The areas of marriage and relationships are but one example. The low marriage rates of African-Americans have become something of a national preoccupation among everybody from scholars to pundits to comics. Except that while various analysts have been busy mulling over what's wrong with those people — black men or black women or both — the marriage rate among all Americans has been steadily dropping. In 1960, more than half of all Americans ages 18 to 29 were married. Today, that number is 22 percent. Forty percent of all children are now born to single mothers. What's more, these numbers reflect real shifts in attitudes about marriage. According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of millennials and 43 percent of Generation X-ers think marriage is obsolete.

This isn't the only example. For years, African-Americans have been quietly, and then loudly, concerned about the fact that more African-American girls than boys were attending and completing college. They worried about the social and economic impact of having a mismatch in educational attainment because, increasingly, people of similar education prefer to marry each other. Well, lo and behold, the same phenomenon is now being seen across the population. In 2010, 55 percent of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female.

I could go on, but you get the point: It is often the case, and not just with black folks but with other minorities, that the complaints and concerns of a minority are dismissed as their problem, when it is actually everybody's problem. If not in the short term, then eventually.

So that is why, it seems to me, as this show heads out to Detroit, and as we all gear up to choose, as we do every four years, who should lead our country, it seems pertinent to consider the specific concerns being raised about the substance and tone of the national debate.

That's not to favor one particular path forward over another — as there are often many routes to the same destination — but only to say that as we go down into the mines, the canary's life you save might be your own.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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