Understanding between races is puzzle piece we've yet to find

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

May 19, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Many whites admit that white racism is widespread, but they say they find themselves growing increasingly impatient when blacks "harp" on the subject.

They say they tend to subconsciously associate young black men with crime, although they acknowledge that the majority of blacks are not criminals.

They do not believe they habitually treat blacks differently because of their color, but they also are willing to admit that they probably do so unknowingly.

And when they try to sort all of this out -- the interplay between their emotions and their intellect, the gap between their understanding of how things ought to be and how things are -- many whites simply toss up their hands in confusion.

I don't know what to think, they say.

I have seen, these past several months, an awful lot written and said about the state of race relations in America, beginning with the David Duke phenomenon in Louisiana and on through to the Simi Valley phenomenon in Los Angeles and the urban riots that followed.

Almost all of the discussion, though, has focused on blacks' feelings as though race were solely a black problem.

Common sense tells me that it would be just as offensive to assume that all whites are racist as to assume that all blacks are violent and stupid.

But how widespread is racism today? What form does it take? How does it sustain itself in these supposedly enlightened times? Why is the race card such a successful gambit for politicians?

To answer these questions, or try, I attempted to do for white attitudes what my colleagues in the media currently are doing for black attitudes. I went out and asked whites what they felt. I asked white political and civic leaders and I asked everyday people.

The majority of the people I talked with acknowledged ambivalent feelings about the blacks they see on television or read about in the newspapers.

A lot of those feelings have to do with crime and poverty and the sense that those misfortunes are largely self-inflicted.

But most insisted they are able to overcome the stereotypes they were taught and treat blacks as individuals.

"Let me put it to you this way," said Jack Leeks, an auto mechanic at a shop on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie.

"When I first see you, and I don't know you, I may have some stereotypes about you being black. 'Cause I was brought up that way and because of television and the movies. But once I get to know you, I'm willing to treat you on an individual basis."

"How were you brought up?" I asked.

"All the stuff you hear about," answered Leeks. "That blacks are criminals and would rather be on welfare than work. I'll say this. Most of the blacks I know personally, with a few exceptions, are decent people. Most of the blacks I hear about are funny, or off."

"It is very confusing," added a woman who worked in the same shop, "to compare what you hear about blacks with the people you know. There are a lot of people out there who still hate blacks as a group but like individual people."

The one thing I heard most often is that while racism exists, many whites feel blacks use it too often as an excuse.

Tom Marr, a conservative talk show host on WCBM radio, said "racism, unfortunately, is a fact of life. But white people become very frustrated with the R word. Racism. To hear it come up always now, when the real issue for the black community is economics, economic empowerment. Whites get sick of hearing excuses."

Said Carole, a high school senior in Howard County, "We've got some really smart whites in my class and some really smart blacks. The blacks get really good grades. But then they've got to talk about racism? I don't know."

Said Bob Embry, head of the prestigious A.S. Abell Foundation, "The majority of people I know recognize that the problem isn't genetic. But they feel that most American blacks, as opposed to Jamaicans or West Africans, have a psychological block that makes it tougher for them to succeed. Racism put that block there. The question is, who removes it?"

Said Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, "The reality is, as you know, that there is no one white community, just as there is no one black community. Opinions are all over the lot.

"But the interesting thing, the irony, is that the shock and disgust with the L.A. verdict was almost universal," Keller said. "Whites were saying, 'Gee, maybe this is what it's like for blacks. Maybe the system of justice cannot be counted on.' On the other hand, you had the horror of the riots, seeing blacks pull whites out of trucks, and people said, 'I'm scared.'"

So, that's what I discovered after my brief survey of white attitudes.

I discovered that we all have a lot to learn about each other.

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