Real beliefs about race Book: David Shipler's five years of research unlocks blacks' and whites' honest views on race in America.

March 09, 1998|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Pulitzer-winning author David Shipler spent five years traveling the country to talk to black and white Americans about their perceptions of one another, visiting places that bring blacks and whites into daily contact -- schools, colleges, military bases, police departments, corporations.

His conclusion:

Racial prejudice remains ever insidious, often unconscious. Many right-minded Americans have deep-rooted racial prejudices they've never considered until they sit down to discuss them.

A former reporter for the New York Times, Shipler is the author of the 1983 "Russia: Broken Idols, Shattered Dreams" and "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

He will speak about barriers between black and white Americans tonight at Loyola College, incorporating findings from his new book "A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America" (Knopf, $30). The Sun asked Shipler about his findings.

What inhibits our understanding of race?

It's not a subject we feel secure discussing. For whites, it's a nervousness about being accused of being racist. For blacks, it's often a sense of vulnerability. If they expose their wounds and hurts, they need to feel there's going to be some support, some response or acknowledgment.

Are we too quick to label people as racist?

It's impossible to grow up in America without absorbing powerful images of blacks that have been around for hundreds of years. That means a lot of people have racist thoughts. Whether those images affect your thinking or behavior is another question.

We need to think about how people fall along a broad spectrum; we make a mistake if we brand people simply as racists or non-racists. There are gradations of open-minded or close-minded, of dominating or being dominated by stereotypes. The question is where we fall between allowing stereotypes to dominate our thoughts and actions and controlling them so they don't influence our behavior.

I think we can change; we do move along that spectrum. The trouble is if we brand certain people as racists, we don't allow for redemption, there's nowhere they can go, they're stuck in that box. That's a very destructive way of thinking. It's dismissive and condescending. People are not pure in any respect. People have contradictions and complications.

Was it difficult to get people to confide in you?

By and large, African-Americans were very open with me, very introspective and thoughtful about discussing their own experiences and examining their own attitudes.

Whites were more difficult: less candid, more defensive, less forthcoming. I had to use a technique with whites more than with blacks of going back for a second or third time.

Blacks more open

I think blacks were generally more open about race than whites partly because they could not go through a single day without thinking about it. It was an issue that was always forced on them.

Are younger Americans freer from racial stereotypes?

I didn't feel there was an enormous difference by generation. I interviewed some high school and college kids who were bigots and some who were very open-minded and working hard on the issues. There's some conventional wisdom that the younger generation is more open, but I honestly doubt that. Given the insensitivities displayed by some white students, it would be Pollyanna-ish to say the younger generation was past this problem, or on the way to solving it.

At this point, 35 years after the March on Washington, where do you see us?

Many, many people have asked me 'Are things getting better or worse?' It shows that race is such a complex phenomenon that even the people living in a society don't know the answer, they have to ask someone who's writing a book.

I think things are getting better and worse at the same time. There are more black corporation executives and more black prisoners. Which number would you like to focus on? My answer to that question is that you have to focus on both because they both give you a picture about what's happening. And you can't put a label on that.

The discussion about race ought to be realistic and clear-eyed and come to grips with the subtle and camouflaged racial problems. To measure progress by using the baseline of de jure segregation is like saying 'The sun came up this morning.' Of course, there's been tremendous change! The hope is that because the society has demonstrated the power to change, it can continue to do so. We cannot make progress unless we define the problems clearly and stop congratulating ourselves for no longer kicking people in the teeth as strongly as we used to.

Are any groups particularly hard to reach?

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