Whites Begin to Face up to the Truths of Racism

May 24, 1991|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- In this period of destructive racial polarization in America, there is hope in the fact that credible, powerful white people are suddenly speaking out about institutionalized racism in America.

Last week the conservative American Medical Association asserted that ''long-standing, systematic, institutionalized'' racism, including bigotry in the medical profession, is to blame for the fact that 33 million Americans, mostly minorities, live with inadequate or non-existent health insurance. It stated dramatically that discrimination in health care is ''morally unacceptable'' and called upon government and business to provide every American with ''affordable coverage'' of health-care costs.

The important thing here is that white people whom no sane person can dismiss as ''bleeding-heart liberals'' are acknowledging openly that institutionalized racism is a curse upon our health-care system.

The print had hardly dried on the AMA exhortation when the highly respected Urban Institute issued a report saying that despite all the federal and local laws against job bias, ''the unequal treatment of black job seekers is entrenched and widespread'' -- another area of institutionalized racism.

The Urban Institute trained 476 two-man, black-and-white teams of people with equal qualifications to seek jobs in Washington and in Chicago last summer. Twenty percent of the black applicants for entry-level jobs were denied treatment equal to that given white applicants. Even in these two heavily black cities, white applicants faced unfavorable treatment -- ''reverse discrimination'' -- in only 7 percent of their job searches.

The Urban Institute said that its research ''contradicts claims that hiring practices today either favor blacks systematically or are effectively color-blind.''

The truth about institutional, legislated injustice has been drawn sharper by a lawsuit in which 40 poor New York school districts claim that state aid rules cheat them unconstitutionally. The appellants claim that the poor Roosevelt district of Nassau County can spend only $5,178 per pupil while the wealthier Great Neck district spends $10,529 per child -- still Great Neck gets $360 per pupil in state aid while Roosevelt gets $2,576. This leaves the richer district with an advantage of more than $3,000 per pupil.

In all the above stories white Americans with consciences are admitting, trying to face up to, the reality that racism is a deeply entrenched, corrosive, even deadly force in this country. White people -- not black ''weepers and moaners'' -- are finally acknowledging that in all the vital areas of life black Americans are still being cheated and abused.

The question is whether these cries of conscience and concern can stop this White House from pandering to the bigots who want us to believe that affirmative action and ''discrimination in reverse'' are the most malevolent forces on the American scene.

For it is not endemic racism that Americans are discussing. No. Lately it is ''race-norming'' -- an alleged abuse of white people by the Labor Department and others who adjust scores on job-qualifications tests to the benefit of black and Hispanic applicants.

I probably don't need to tell readers that I believe whole-heartedly in affirmative-action programs to remedy injustice, and that a policy of inclusion into our work force of the previously rejected is critical to America's economic well-being. But I'd like to string up by his or her tiny brain whoever came up with this scheme of ''race-norming.''

I know that the Labor Department's General Aptitude Test Battery is skewed in favor of white people, and those of any race who grow up in circumstances of economic and educational privilege. But any formula for automatically enhancing the scores of blacks or any other minority plays foolishly into the hands of the racists crying ''reverse discrimination.'' It feeds the mindless paranoia of whites who want to believe, even in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, that whites are being cheated so ''incompetent'' blacks and Hispanics can get the good jobs.

Richard Seymour of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights explains that blacks test poorly but become better workers than their scores suggest, while whites test very well, but become poorer workers than their scores indicated. A questionable generalization perhaps, but a heedable warning that in deciding on whom to gamble a key job, no government official or private executive ought ever be trapped in the rigidity of dubious test scores.

Let the Bush administration endorse a revision of the Labor Department's General Aptitude Test Battery to even out the cultural biases. Even then the test can only give us a first shaky clue as to which job applicant's drive, personality, room for growth makes him or her the one who might make the immediate boss look good, and otherwise glorify the company -- or the country.

The pretenses that ''aptitude'' tests, even corrected by ''race-norming,'' take the subjective factor out of hiring and promotion is the poison at our picnic. Let's stop kidding ourselves and allow the hirers and managers to make decisions on a basis of fairness that is essential to the building of the sinews of a pre-eminent democracy.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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