Clinton, Spielberg, etc., enter stage left

December 05, 1997|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- If you think that race relations in the United States have steadily, almost miraculously, improved over the past 35 years -- which I do -- this might be a good week to stay away from newspapers and television news.

Names make news, and we are about to be bombarded by some of the biggest of them, beginning with President Clinton and Steven Spielberg, moving on to ''Doonesbury,'' and dropping down to Tawana Brawley and Latrell Sprewell.

Race extravaganza

The president's well-meaning race extravaganza began Wednesday with a town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio, and continued yesterday with the first public hearings of his Advisory Board on Race, chaired by the Duke University historian John Hope Franklin. Then comes ''Amistad,'' Mr. Spielberg's film on the 1839 takeover of a Spanish ship by 53 slaves. The movie will probably do better than the reality, partly because Mr. Franklin, no politician, with no feel for the appearance of fairness, made a significant mistake by refusing to invite Ward Connerly, California's dedicated destroyer of affirmative action.

Mr. Connerly, however, is being worked over right now in ''Doonesbury,'' Garry Trudeau's journal of distilled social commentary. The cartoonist, who is certainly more than that, is defending affirmative action, which I consider God's work on Earth.

But coast-to-coast, the lesser gods of coincidence may make this a lousy time to say such things. In New York, Tawana Brawley is back in court in a civil suit related to her charges 10 years ago, when she was a teen-ager, that she was kidnapped and raped by police and prosecutors in a town north of the city. In San Francisco, Latrell Sprewell, a 27-year-old being paid $32 million over four years for his skill with a basketball, had his contract terminated for attacking his boss, P.J. Carlesimo, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, and threatening to kill him.

Messrs. Clinton, Carlesimo, Spielberg and Trudeau are white, as was John Quincy Adams, the former president who defended the mutineering slaves of the Amistad before the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Franklin, Mr. Connerly, Ms. Brawley and Mr. Sprewell are African-Americans, as ''Cinque,'' the leader of the rebellious slaves, was an African.

The point of that little listing is that African-Americans, or American blacks, are no longer peripheral. There is and always will be racism in this society, but black people are now central to life in these United States. They were not when I was growing up, just before young blacks began a relatively bloodless revolution and then were joined by white folks who figured out schemes such as affirmative action to bring white and black people together.

And they did. Walk on most any street, turn on the television, open the door to most any shop or most any classroom, and you see a different American face than the one we saw in the 1960s.

I don't, by the way, need any more letters telling me that white men like me, whatever that means, have not been affected by affirmative action. I have, or we have, but it was nothing like the sacrifices and dislocations of many of our fathers and grandfathers who gave their lives to wars that seemed necessary to preserve free civilization. Progress has a price; someone always pays.

Asked in 1831 what he considered the United States' greatest problem, John Quincy Adams said: Slavery ''is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future.''

The same man, Adams, also said: ''I know nothing more insolent than a black when he is not speaking to his master and is not afraid of a beating. The Negro women especially very often take advantage of the mistresses' kindness. They know it is not the custom to inflict corporal punishment on them.''

Nothing is black and white. Or everything is. We, all of us, have come a long way, really. The trick of racial justice is to spread the payment and pain as widely and thinly as possible. We have been doing that as well as we could these past three decades.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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