Exploring race relations: Dr. King would be proud

January 18, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Frank Reed and I are having coffee at a fast food restaurant in Columbia and it is no big deal. We shake hands. We exchange pleasantries. But after a while, I feel compelled to shake my head in amazement.

"Frank," I say, "I have to tell you, it is very, very strange sitting with you like this -- talking quietly, without a whole lot of controversy and confusion."

"I know what you mean," agrees Frank. "Funny how times change."

Frank and I were student leaders in high school in Washington, D.C. Frank was a leader of the white students and I of the blacks. Twenty-four years ago, Frank and I would have faced each other across a great divide, anxious and tense, like Tony exchanging glares with Bernardo in "West Side Story."

We chuckle about this now. It is Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and bitterly cold outside. Frank and I had bumped into each other a few weeks earlier, reminisced, and gone our separate ways. Then I called him to talk about this column.

"You want to know what the typical white person thinks about Dr. King's birthday?" repeats Frank, good naturedly. "Well, I don't know what the typical white person thinks. I can only tell you how I think. In fact, I don't believe there is any such thing as a typical white person, any more than there is a typical black."

Today, Frank and I seem to have more in common than not. We're both 40 years old. Divorced fathers. Native Washingtonians. Weekend jocks with growing paunches and thinning hair. We both have bill collectors howling at the door, bosses breathing down our necks. (Frank's an engineer.) We both are beginning to feel the faint, feathery touch of our own mortality. We confront the reality of frustrated dreams.

Yet, our perceptions of race relations are determined by our colors.

"Sometimes," Frank says, "I think whites have embraced Dr. King's dream more readily than blacks. I know that racism still exists. But most whites I know are willing to judge blacks as individuals. My sense, though, is that for many blacks, race is their defining issue. Whites resent that."

"For a lot of blacks it is the defining issue," I say. "Discrimination remains like an extra tax each of us has to pay. Blacks at the top of the economic scale can afford this extra tax. Blacks at or near the bottom cannot."

"Even if I agreed that across-the-board discrimination still exists, the question becomes what blacks should do about it," argues Frank. "Do you work harder to overcome the barriers or do you waste energy calling for the government to rescue you? I think blacks have reached the point where there is nothing more the government can do for them. It is up to individuals, now, to fight their own battles."

"Don't you think blacks understand this?" I ask.

"You know what," says Frank, "I agree. I think most blacks do understand this. I find myself disagreeing with black leaders more than with individual blacks. I think it is the leaders who are keeping this racism thing alive."

"But you just acknowledged that racism still exists."

"It does exist," says Frank. "I have friends whom I would define as racist. The question is, does racism define America? Does racism define race relations here? Does racism prevent a hard-working individual who happens to be black from succeeding in America?"

By this time, we are both leaning forward, speaking fervently. It's as if we had jumped back in time -- debating issues such as whether the prom committee should allow soul music on the program.

"Here's the bottom line," I say. "Blacks banded together in order to fight for the right to be treated as individuals. When that happens, when opportunities truly are equal, then you can say racism is irrelevant."

Counters Frank, "The bottom line for me is, I want to be held accountable for my actions and attitudes, not for that of the white race and not for what happened in the past. Like Dr. King said, judge me by the content of my character and I'll judge you the same way."

"Then you want what I want," I say. "Dr. King would be proud of us both."

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