THE NATURE of racism in America has changed in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, many African Americans have been slow to adapt.
In the 1950s and '60s, blacks took on and accomplished the task of breaking through the wall of overt racism built by American society to obstruct black progress. Since then, we have given too much attention to continuing the attack on the wall, and not enough to walking through the hole and taking advantage of the opportunity on the other side.
It was black defiance that broke through the wall. But defiance will not lead the black American drive for success in the 1990s. A new attitude will be needed.
Robert L. Steinback The problem is that defiance has become a nearly inextricable part of the black self-concept since the 1960s, so much so that many of us are unprepared for the new battlefield.
Since defiance is a strategy that is only effective in the presence of a superior oppressing force, we have unwittingly convinced ourselves that such a superior force -- racism -- has us surrounded.
I contend that black Americans have internalized an anxiety that racism is stronger than we are. No matter how many battles are won, there remains a sense that the war is always going against us: Racism endures, it is everywhere, and it could overwhelm us at any moment.
The fear of racism's potency permeates -- and debases -- black self-esteem. I suspect many young blacks drop out of school because they are convinced society offers them no real opportunity, whether or not they graduate. Many turn to crime because they figure they have nothing to lose the system is stacked against them anyway. Black teen-age girls see fulfillment in having babies because they see so little chance of fulfillment by any other route.
Black men fearful of being turned into failures by society choose to leave their families rather than endure letting them down.
I have heard many young men on the street snicker that "those crackers" or "those Cubans" would never give a black person a fair chance. Whites and Hispanics control everything, they say, and won't give up anything. What's the use?
Many of us are so certain racism will frustrate our aspirations that we have simply given up.
The racism blacks perceive is not a product of the imagination. It is a real force, more insidious than in the past because it is so subtle. And its hiding place -- deep inside the minds of the ignorant and the dastardly -- is virtually inaccessible to direct action.
That subtlety and inaccessibility renders defiance all but ineffective. But we have a much better tool at our disposal if we choose to use it: confidence.
With a newly emergent sense of confidence, African Americans can stop thinking of racism as a potent, superior enemy. In the face of confidence, racism is little more than a nuisance to be swept aside by our own determination and ability.
It is time to just say "so what" to racism.
We need to develop the confidence that we can progress and succeed in spite of whatever racism there is around us. It must be a confidence in our own ability to encounter obstacles and overcome them, a confidence in our ultimate resourcefulness. The playing field may indeed be slanted against blacks -- but doesn't a runner develop more endurance by running uphill?
The 1990s will be a tough decade for ethnic relations in this country. Much of the environment of justice and equality that emerged from the 1960s has eroded into selfishness and bitterness. People are in no mood to appease blacks or any other minority group. Each act of defiance will bring a backlash of counter-defiance, then another. The resulting downward spiral will benefit no one.
African Americans can begin charting a new path to success because we have already won the only thing we ever really needed: a chance.
Robert L. Steinback is a Miami Herald columnist.