Like many of you, I recently read the article, “A $250 Million Fraud Scheme Finds a Path to Brighton Beach,” that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on March 1st, and in the weeks that followed I have been unable to shake the impression that the article left on me. I don’t believe the author William Rashbaum described any inaccuracies, nor do I disagree that a story about health care fraud is newsworthy; the aspect that has left a sour taste in my mouth was a quote by an unnamed law-enforcement official. Now don’t misunderstand me, I hold our law-enforcement officials in the highest regard, but for one to generalize a community of 400,000 people and state, “This is the Russian mind set, and this is why it’s endemic in our system. If you’re not scamming the system, if you’re not scamming the government, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing – you’re looked upon as a patsy” is simply wrong.
Every community and culture has their law abiding citizens, and has their criminals; sure for some Russian American’s the “Soviet Mentality” is still alive, but for most of us that is not the case. Myself for example, I am currently serving my third term in the New York State Legislature, not only do I follow the laws of our government, I write them, and I am certainly no patsy. I have fought too long and hard to improve the lives of many in the Russian American community and assist with the fusion of our community into mainstream American life for it to be torn away by one uneducated opinion.
The problem with this type of generalization is two-fold; it affects the people it is written about, and it affects the way others view them. For many younger Russian Americans I fear that they will read these type of derogatory statements made against them and their community and start to believe that it is the type of person they are, or that society already perceives them that way so turning into that person becomes an unfortunate natural progression. From the other angle it is because of these types of comments that stereotypes against our community grow strength and are propelled on and on; it is all one extremely vicious cycle that needs to stop.
This is not an issue specific to the Russian American community, for years many groups and cultures have been forced to live with these stereotypes and the damning effects they have on our communities. I suggest that before these sorts of comments are made we take a step back and think about the impact our words can have on others. As sure as the childhood rhyme goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I can assure you, that to the people on the receiving end, the words hurt.