The need to talk to each other

April 23, 1996|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- With the benefit of hindsight and the restoration of relative calm, it feels like a bad dream, an ugly aberration that couldn't have happened -- meaning the firestorm of controversy surrounding the acquittal of O.J. Simpson -- the moment of meltdown when America threw a tantrum on the issue of race.

Looking back, the most striking thing about that October surprise is not the debate over Simpson's guilt or innocence or even, per se, that blacks and whites tended to hold different views of the trial. Rather, it's the shock and amazement, the sheer, slack-jawed stupefaction among many whites who simply could not believe the racial chasm was so deep and wide. Me, I couldn't believe they were so profoundly out of touch.

In an essay in the New York Times, author Benjamin DeMott offered an intriguing theory as to how they got that way. ''Why is white America so dim about racial divisions?'' he asks. ''Because popular culture has sold the notion that the races have achieved equality.''

Racial conviviality

Mr. DeMott argues persuasively that television and, to a lesser extent, music and movies, have presented a rosy picture of racial conviviality that bears little resemblance to reality. And that that portrayal lulled whites into thinking the divide was less wide than it actually is.

People -- white people in particular -- think we have overcome because we have Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric bantering with easy familiarity on ''Today,'' a black kid adventuring with ''Captain Planet,'' or Meshach Taylor and Harry Anderson embodying cross-cultural amity in ''Dave's World.''

TV presents such a pretty picture. It's easy to forget it's only that.

It's hard to blame the fantasy factory for selling us that idealized vision. Sure, it's wish fulfillment, but that's what Hollywood does.

But if television has the power to idealize, it also has the less-often-used ability to unveil and explore. ''NYPD Blue'' aired a compelling episode spotlighting a racial confrontation between its Det. Andy Sipowicz and Lt. Arthur Fancy. For those who are not fans, Fancy is an emotionally taut black man walking a tightrope of expectation and politics as top cop in the squad room. Sipowicz is Archie Bunker without the laughs, a bruised and bigoted soul struggling toward a redemption that is by no means assured.

Theirs was that rare confrontation that produces as much light as heat. Harsh, necessary things were said. No easy answers were offered. And in the end, the men withdrew uneasily from the edge. It was not pleasant to watch, but there was an honesty in it that is largely missing from television's discussion of race.

In a more enlightened society, television would bring us that sort of candor more often, leavening its celebration of how far we have come with straight talk on how far we haven't.

No, I take that back. In a more enlightened society, what television does would not be so important because white Americans would have other sources of information to draw upon. But because, by and large, they do not, television assumes inordinate importance in the shaping of their attitudes toward blacks.

Fuzzy warm tokenism

And if the media's tendency toward stereotype has long had the power to negatively skew the public perception of blacks, this newer tendency toward fuzzy warm tokenism has its dangers, too.

I don't doubt the media's good intentions in this regard. On the other hand, we all know that good intentions are the preferred asphalt on the road to Hades.

The fact is, television can do only so much. A steady diet of Sipowicz vs. Fancy would ultimately be as misleading as one of happy talk.

While the media struggle to get the mix right, it is incumbent on white America to realize that real life, and real black Americans, wait on the other side of the door. The divide, if it is to be closed, will be closed there. Ultimately, the work is ours, not Hollywood's. Television can only reflect. And we would be well advised to remember that right now, the reflection is of what we wish -- not yet of what we are.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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