National discussion on race should offer some light, not just give off a lot of heat

December 05, 1997|By Derrick Z. Jackson

THE OTHER day, I caught a segment of a talk show on CNN. The subject was ''race.'' It hit me like barking dogs. The mostly white audience nodded in great agreement as Armstrong Williams, an African-American conservative whose mouth runs at the speed of a Chihuahua, decried affirmative action, liberals, Jesse Jackson and other red meat.

Given this absolution by Mr. Williams -- all it takes is one black conservative to allow many white Americans to discredit the experience of the great majority of African-Americans -- several white people plugged in their built-in tape recording on race relations. They denied prejudice but felt compelled to voice disgust in the same sentence for lazy people who live off the government.

Lazy people

Since the notion of lazy people and welfare rarely comes up in any context other than black people (in contrast to corporate tax breaks, farm subsidies and land giveaways for sports stadiums), this was merely a shifting from sirloin to porterhouse. It is still red meat.

As I watched one white man get worked up in this way, it was a confirmation that this talk about race is doomed largely to be a new chapter in the ways of weary white folks.

While there has been decent economic progress for a third of the African-American population, the white exhaustion with regard to the remaining two-thirds is no different than that observed by African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois nearly a century ago when segregation was locked into place.

''We have a way in America of wanting to be 'rid' of problems,'' DuBois wrote in 1906. ''It is not so much a desire to reach the best and largest solution as it is to clean the board and start a new game. For instance, most Americans are simply tired and impatient over our most sinister social problem, the Negro. They do not want to solve it, they do not want to understand it, they simply want to be done with it.''

It is possible that the national discussion on race, which President Clinton launched Wednesday with a town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio, can have a long-lasting impact in localities and among individuals. Leaders of all different colors in several cities have initiated group discussions and educational programs about ''race.''

I have been in many such groups over the years, and as weary as black folks get in describing not ''race,'' but racism, there always is value, sometimes great value, in candid conversation.

But that is perhaps only a third of the distance to good race relations. Not to denigrate discussion groups, but, to borrow from both Rodney King and Barney, they fall into the realm of ''Can I like you, can you like me, can't we all get along?'' It is the realm where everyone is equally responsible for his actions, reactions and overreactions that involve ''race.'' That is the realm of basic civility.

But the other half is the firm declaration, particularly by Mr. Clinton, that white Americans bear the primary responsibility of making sure that bias and ignorance do not lead to institutional discrimination. White Americans still make up 76 percent of the population. Despite the cult of white victimization that surrounds the assault on affirmative action, white Americans still make up 89.2 percent of officials and managers and 85.7 percent of professionals in private industry.

White Americans are still 90 percent of executives, 95 percent of lawyers and judges, 91 percent of sales supervisors and 84 percent of doctors. While people of color can be just as bigoted as white Americans, white Americans remain far more able to use their biases, however unconscious, to build a glass ceiling, steel curtain or hold a Damocles sword over the schooling, hiring, promoting, jailing and even Saturday shopping of people of color.

An honest discussion

President Clinton has repeatedly called for an honest discussion of racial issues. I hope he can initiate it. But honesty begins with the fact of who, in the context of this country, has the power to exercise racism.

Anything less means that America will repeat the mistakes observed by DuBois. The town halls will be just talk. The talk will be a game. The game is to get ''rid'' of responsibility for racism while doing nothing to solve it.

Race relations will remain separate kennels, except that in terms of power, one contains German shepherds, the other Chihuahuas. They both can bark, but everyone knows which has the bite.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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