PARANOIA often blurs the boundary between the rational and the absurd.
When a U.S. Department of Education official recently observed that universities cannot sponsor race-exclusive scholarships, the ensuing uproar forced the administration to recant.
After the blizzard of criticism, Michael Williams, the Education Department official, declared that his view had been "legally correct" but "politically naive." Not only was his view legally correct; it made sense.
In the swirl of America's racial maelstrom, common sense and logical reasoning are early casualties. Their death becomes comprehensible within the context of blacks' paranoia about the potency and prevalence of white racism.
Blacks' paranoia is fed constantly. For example, a much-publicized study recently showed that white males are offered substantially better deals on new cars than women or blacks. Although testers in the study followed identical scripts with auto salespeople, the white male testers were consistently offered the lowest price on a new car. The black male and black female fared the worst.
Such findings add fuel to blacks' worst fear: Racism is everywhere, leaving no element of our lives untouched. Not only must I worry about employment discrimination or police harassment; I even get shortchanged when I go to buy a car.
Such outrageous facts of life understandably evolve into paranoia that whites are out to get us, that there is a conspiracy to destroy black Americans. Under the guidance of paranoia, the rational gives way to the absurd.
As a black woman told me recently, "Rick, you know the white man controls our lives; always has and always will." Her comment was meant to explain a host of social problems afflicting blacks, from AIDS and drug addiction to high unemployment.
Because white racism threatens to seep into and poison every aspect of our lives, in many blacks' minds the only way to progress is to have a gain mandated, legally guaranteed. Race-exclusive scholarships are such a guarantee.
Many blacks extend the argument to justify reparations for slavery, to fulfill the unkept promise of 40 acres and a mule. People justify this claim by pointing to the fact that Japanese-Americans received reparations for their internment here during World War II.
The obvious difference, which invalidates the comparison, is that reparations were only for those Japanese-Americans actually interned, not every Japanese-American. Yet this is precisely what many black Americans would propose.
Our fear of once again being racism's victim drowns voices of reason. Paranoia, even if arising from justifiable fears, leads to absurd conclusions. Paranoia makes us want to claim and clutch tightly any race-based claim, lest our oppressors quickly snatch it away.
As the logical conclusion of such skewed reasoning, many blacks begin to feel that because they're black, they are owed a living.
And therein lies the problem. History cannot be cleaned and soothed liked a skinned knee so that everything is OK again.
Yet the tragedy is not that paranoia leads to absurd claims, nor is it that white males can purchase a new car for $1,000 less than black males.
The tragedy is that the psychological knot of racism, with its tangled history of fear and resentment, fuels debates about auto purchases or race-specific scholarships. The debates divert attention from the pressing problems of the black community.
In many urban areas, more adult black males have been to jail than haven't. Of course, many more have been to jail than have been to college. In these areas a majority of black men under 30 have never held a real job. Never. Many of the black children fortunate enough to be born free of drug addiction will still never see their parents go to work each day, will never learn the importance of work. The storm rages.
Desperate social problems are ignored, hidden behind the veil of absurdity which fuels public debate.
R. Richard Banks writes from Stanford, Calif.