NO ONE can reasonably doubt that racism exists. The question is what effect racism exerts on the lives of minorities, particularly black Americans.
The traditional civil rights view is that white racism blocks black Americans' achievement, denying them opportunity and prosperity.
Others argue that the battle against racism and discrimination has been won. They don't necessarily deny the existence of racism but see it now as merely an annoyance.
For years I held the latter view: "Yes, racism exists," I conceded, "but we're past the point where it dramatically limits our lives." As a 25-year-old black man from a working-class family with a diploma from a prestigious private high school and both bachelor's and master's degrees from Stanford University, I am living proof, I thought, that racism ain't what it used to be. In my young life, I have walked through doors of opportunity which were bolted shut to my forebears.
But recently I have began to glimpse the lie behind the facade of my life's opportunities. I know many whites who are more successful than similarly educated, intelligent and motivated blacks. I know many blacks who should make it big but don't.
And lately the volume has risen on the drama which plays inside my head.
A few weeks ago, I had an argument with my manager about a major real estate project I've undertaken. He seemed to conjure up every reason why the deal would not work.
As we talked, I wondered if he would have reacted the same had I been white. Would he have been less critical, more supportive, more hopeful? I sensed (or did I imagine?) the anxiety and envy behind my manager's questions and smile, as if he would rather see me fail.
I perform the same self-quiz with my co-workers. Behind words of congratulation, do I sense the hope of failure?
I have no answer. Anyway, the answer does not matter; what matters is that I continually ask the question.
Other blacks, I know, confront the same dilemma. Confounded by our colleagues' behavior, we can't help but wonder if it's our old nemesis: racism.
Blacks' biggest legacy from centuries of white racism, the heaviest baggage, is having to constantly question white goodwill, to wonder: Do they truly want to help or are their kind words designed to put one at ease in order to better sabotage a black person's success?
We question not so much our own competence as we question whites' actions. With my manager, this distrust causes me not to raise many of my genuine concerns about the deal, not to ask his advice, not to confide my own doubts. Most important perhaps, my incessant questioning demands mental and emotional energy that would be better focused on the deal itself. My internal drama confuses my understanding and clouds my vision.
The legacy of racism, the scars, live within. Neither my manager nor anyone else I work with has done anything damningly racist, nothing to call the NAACP about.
But I know I would excel more were I white, or he black. Then these troubling questions would never come to mind to cloud my vision, muddle my thinking, dampen my responses.
Unfortunately, this drama cannot be addressed through laws or affirmative action programs, and yields to no quick or easy solution.
But it's real nonetheless, as real as love and hate and all the other unseen forces which motivate and guide.
R. Richard Banks writes from Stanford, Calif.