Where do we go from here?

March 05, 1998|By Harold Jackson

THE WHITE liberal was squirming. That's not supposed to happen when the conversation is race. His list of bona fides as a genuine friend of blacks was supposed to get him through these situations unscathed. But here he was feeling, well, uncomfortable.

It was one of the few interesting moments of the "One America Conversation" that took place Friday at the Baltimore Convention Center. The event was one of the numerous lesser affairs staged by the Clinton administration, not one of the more elaborate proceedings that have included the president's race commission and sometimes Mr. Clinton himself.

But with fewer participants and moderated by William E. Leftwich III, deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity, the Baltimore conversation still suffered some of the same problems. Put together hastily as part of the 12th annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference, the panel lacked diversity, especially in terms of opinion.

The 16 participants were mostly middle-class African-Americans, five of them women. There were four whites and an Asian -- all men -- who for the most part resembled the blacks both in economic status and their opinions about racism. Except for one.

Insurance executive Frank Kelly, who said he also represented the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, almost whispered that while he believed in affirmative action, he wasn't so sure that government ought to be in the preferences business: "Part of me sees it as reverse discrimination."

An ethics question

Eugene M. DeLoatch, dean of the Engineering School at Morgan State University, countered that he didn't see how anyone who professed to be a Christian could oppose affirmative action. Whereupon Jan Houbolt, an executive with the Greater Baltimore Committee, thought he would come to Mr. Kelly's rescue.

Noting he had attended Howard University in the late 1960s (but stopping short of the cliche about some of his best friends being black), Mr. Houbolt said the reaction to Mr. Kelly's position was one of the main reasons whites are afraid to discuss race relations publicly. "If you can't have an alliance with Frank, who can you have an alliance with?" he asked.

Mr. Houbolt then offered that while he had lost opportunities to blacks whom he believed were less qualified, he still believed in affirmative action.

The remark visibly agitated former Hughes Electronics Corp. Vice President for Diversity David R. Barclay. "What do you call the person who finished first in his medical school class and the one who finished last? 'Doctor.' They're both qualified," said Mr. Barclay.

At that point, Mr. Houbolt complained, "I feel this dialogue is falling apart." The subject changed to the need for American students to learn more foreign languages in this diverse world. Closing remarks were made by Mr. Left-ich, and the 2 1/2 -hour conversation ended.

Was it worthwhile? Were things learned that will help President Clinton develop race-relations policies? Or would it have been better to have the catharsis that can occur when people stop being so polite and say what they really feel about race and racism?

Days later during a telephone conversation, Mr. Houbolt said he believes dialogue, in which both sides really listen to each other, is preferable to debate where one person tries to make a point.

His belief that mutual benefit is better than self-gratification is valid. But what took place during the One America Conversation in Baltimore was neither dialogue nor debate. It was mostly a recitation of experiences and hopes that have been heard too many times.

A black woman tells of being ostracized by neighbors after moving into a previously all-white neighborhood. A black man recounts the instructions he routinely gives his teen-age children about what to do if stopped by a white policeman while driving. Pleas are made for people to talk to each other more.

Mr. Leftwich concluded that the conversation that day was "just a scratch on a gnat's wing" that takes the nation "a little closer to where we want to go."

But after all the talking, there's still great uncertainty as to where, exactly, that is.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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