WASHINGTON -- Bill Bradley would like to know the last time you sat down with someone of another race and talked bluntly about race relations. Chances are the answer is never, and if that's so, then Mr. Bradley thinks you're part of the problem.
Mr. Bradley is an Ivy League white male in the U.S. Senate, and lately he has talked a lot about race. To some political consultants, a white politician barging around on such an explosive issue might as well play hopscotch in a minefield. And it's not as though Mr. Bradley, D-N.J., has a particularly large bloc of black voters to woo in his home state (New Jersey is 13 percent black, roughly the national average).
What, then, is he up to?
Simple, he says. He is sounding a wake-up call to his country, warning that even though race influences every major domestic political debate of our time -- from crime to education to the economy to the Supreme Court -- it remains cloaked in code words and timid silence, or else is cynically exploited by the slick appeals of political advertising. This, he says, leaves the blunt talk to the extremists, black and white, whose seething messages only make things worse.
Mr. Bradley's response is to propose that everybody else start speaking up in straightforward language -- or be prepared for the consequences when the hatred boils over.
Or, as he put it recently, "the more Americans are honest about the level of distrust they hold for each other, the easier it will be to get beyond those feelings."
As for well-off whites like himself, who might dismiss all this as irrelevant in their own, comfortable lives, Mr. Bradley has some advice: "By the year 2000, only 57 percent of people entering the work force will be native-born whites. White Americans have to understand that their children's standard of living is inextricably bound to the future of millions of non-white children."
Mr. Bradley last touched on the issue Oct. 15 in his speech opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. He decried as cynical dishonesty President Bush's disavowal of race as a selection factor, though he said he was heartened by the candor of Judge Thomas' late-in-the-game defense against the black stereotypes of what he called a "high-tech lynching."
But Mr. Bradley's most expansive remarks on the subject came in two speeches in July, when he set down the themes that he intends to repeat as long as people will listen.
Open letter to Bush
The first speech, to his colleagues on the Senate floor, was an open letter to Mr. Bush in which Mr. Bradley challenged the president to "tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life. I don't mean speech-writer abstractions about equality or liberty, but your own life experiences. When did you realize there was a difference between the lives of black people and the lives of white people in America? Where did you ever experience or see discrimination? How did you feel? What did you do?"
But he also scolded the rest of the nation, whites and blacks, plowing straight into the minefield by saying, "We will never lead the world by example of our living values if we can't eradicate the 'reservation' mentality many whites hold about cities. We will never understand the problems of our cities -- the factories closed, the housing filled with rats, the hospitals losing doctors, the schools pockmarked with bullet holes, the middle class moved away -- until a white person can point out the epidemic of minority illegitimacy, drug addiction and homicides without being charged a racist."
Having called on Mr. Bush to bare his conscience on the issue, Mr. Bradley felt that he should do so, and six days later he told a National Press Club audience of his own life, with its beginnings in a small Missouri town on the Mississippi River, where schools weren't integrated until he was in the ninth grade.
But it wasn't until after college, in the early 1970s, that he got his education on race, as a forward for the New York Knicks professional basketball team.
"I wish I had $100 for every time in the last 20 years that someone -- usually a white person -- asked me what it was like to play on the Knicks and travel with my teammates. . . . I'd ask, 'What do you mean? . . . You mean that most of them were black? That I was living in a kind of black world?'
" 'Well, yes!' they'd finally admit."
It was, he said, "one of the most enlightening experiences of my life." Besides learning about friendship, team camaraderie and the strength of each teammate's individuality, he also learned plenty about race.