'If you had your wish . . . '

March 22, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- A public argument I recently had with author Dinesh D'Souza has left a lingering question in my mind.

It started when a Washington bookstore invited me to stage a dialogue with the guest of my choice. I chose Mr. D'Souza, a young conservative with the American Enterprise Institute. He published a famous book last year that says racism is not a big deal anymore (''The End of Racism''). I just published a book that says it is (''Showing My Color'').

I invited him to a ''showdown of ideas.'' Since Mr. D'Souza loves to argue almost as much as I do, he accepted.

Then the fun began. For almost an hour, I pelted him with barbs, questions and critiques. Then, before turning to our audience for questions, I asked him if he had any questions he wanted to ask me.

Just one, he said: ''If you could have one wish, which would you wish for: An immediate end to black out-of-wedlock births or an immediate end to racism?''

Tricky, I thought. For a moment, my mind wandered into a dreamy place where such wishes could come true.

I imagined an America without racism.

I imagined an America without Rodney King or Reginald Denny ''incidents.''

I imagined black ''ghettoes'' evaporating as poor blacks were enabled, at last, to integrate into working-class and middle-class neighborhoods the way most poor whites (who vastly outnumber poor blacks in America) do now, according to census maps of where the poor live.

I imagined white America extending as much concern to poor black children as they would extend to poor white children if they had to live in similar conditions.

I imagined employers, taxi drivers and bank lending officers having to look at other factors besides skin color to judge how dependable, criminal or hard-working we are.

I imagined Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman having to find more ''probable cause'' than black skin as a reason to stop a man driving a fancy car.

I imagined an America with major political parties that welcomed black participation, instead of having one party that seems sometimes to be embarrassed to have so many of us and another party that seems delighted not to have very many of us.

I imagined that, with color gone, the human elements of America's problems would emerge with a new, heart-warming clarity.

''Their'' problems would become ''our'' problems and we all would get about the business of solving them, rather than wasting time placing blame and claiming innocence.

Hope could replace hate. Blacks would no longer feel the need for special protection and whites no longer would feel particularly put-upon.

''The beauty of diversity''

Integration would, as Martin Luther King Jr., once said, no longer be seen as a problem, ''but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.''

Ah, yes, dreams are made of such.

But, of course, as glorious as that new racism-free day might seem, there also would be a price. Freedom is a burden, the writer-philosopher Franz Kafka wrote. Stripped of our victim status, we would be forced to prove ourselves on our own merits. We, too, would have to work to improve neighborhoods, mentor youths and support important community institutions.

It would take some adjustment to stop feeling sorry for ourselves about racism, but it is an adjustment we could make.

It would be a small price to pay, compared to the burden of fighting a war on two fronts, against despair ''at home'' and against racism abroad. The burden would be lightened even more, if we no longer felt we were fighting the battle alone.

Mr. D'Souza's question illustrated the difference between his viewpoint and mine and, with that, the differences between the way most white and black Americans view the world. Blacks don't think whites worry enough about racism and whites don't think blacks worry enough about pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.

So, after what seemed a long time in my mind, but was actually only an instant, I responded to Mr. D'Souza that I thought his question offered a false choice. Why choose one or the other virtue? Why not have both? Why not?

He persisted. It was a question of priorities, he said. It is time for blacks to decide other problems are more important than racism.

Ah, but racism is still important enough. Besides, since when do we Americans limit ourselves to working on one problem at a time? To persist in that path only invites more finger-pointing, blame-placing and innocence-claiming. That might sell books, but it doesn't solve problems.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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