The continuing need for honest talk about race

December 26, 1997|By Tom Teepen

PRESIDENT Clinton wanted a national discussion of race. He is getting a fight over affirmative action. We're trading down.

The president has now dutifully met with a group of political conservatives to hear them out on affirmative action. He more or less had to after his race panel declined to take testimony from them.

The panel was trying to keep its mission on course, not let it get bogged down in policy arguments, but the decision was naive. It produced predictable gasps from throats that had been just waiting to cry foul.

Mr. Clinton has now defused that, at least a bit, with a 90-minute sit-down at the White House that let its opponents vent against affirmative action.

Obviously that issue is tangled up in the nation's churning racial attitudes, but it is neither central to the dynamics of race in this country nor inseparable from a serious consideration of them.

The discussion the president wants is fitting and due. If we will hTC just say it, there is much that blacks and whites need to tell themselves and one another. There are messages that are not getting through.

African Americans have a hard time crediting whites when they say the racial attitudes of most have changed markedly for the better in recent years, though that is in fact the case.

Whites remain deaf to black testimony that most African Americans nonetheless live with their racial nerve ends rubbed raw from the large and small abrasions of racial friction.

Whites who declare the nation now colorblind, if they delude anyone, delude only themselves. African Americans know them to be fools, if not worse.

Few whites have as yet admitted to themselves that all carry at least a recessive racist gene from the nation's lineage of overt racism. Yet alertness to the gene is the surest protection against its cunning.

Too many blacks remain ready to explain every personal disappointment or social pathology as the work solely of racism.

The kind of discussion Mr. Clinton hopes for is damnably difficult to start -- a sure sign it is needed.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for the Atlanta Constitution.

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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