On race, we're confused and divided - but at least we're talking

December 19, 2006|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

City officials in Vidor, Texas, screamed foul when news broke that their town was once one of America's notorious "sundown towns" for blacks. In the segregation era, that was the town fathers' not-so-discreet way of warning black people that they would be jailed, assaulted or worse if they were caught in town after dark.

Vidor officials vehemently insisted that they have long since disavowed that naked, in-your-face racism. They contend that the press latched onto the town's woeful past to grab cheap, sensationalist headlines. They're right, sort of.

Sundown towns are a part of America's disgraceful racial past, and Vidor has done a few things to make amends for its past. Vidor school officials have plastered the beaming face of a black girl on billboards and have mounted an aggressive public relations campaign promoting the family-friendly benefits of living in Vidor. But many African-Americans aren't buying the racial cheeriness. More than a few whites were unabashed in telling a reporter they didn't want black folks in their neighborhoods.

The mix of enlightenment, bigotry, fear and denial by black people and white people on race is hardly unique to Vidor. In a CNN opinion poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. exclusively on black and white racial attitudes, a substantial number of both groups said racism is still alive and well in the country - but they blame others for being racists, not themselves. Whites say that too much is made of race, while blacks say the opposite. The confusion is no surprise.

The "whites only" signs no longer exist. There are no redneck Southern cops turning fire hoses on and beating hapless black demonstrators. There are legions of black newscasters and talk show hosts, topped by TV's richest and most popular host, Oprah Winfrey. Mega-rich black entertainers and athletes are pampered and fawned over by a doting media and adoring public. Black people are on the top rung in many corporations and universities.

Countless TV commercials picture blacks living in trendy, integrated suburbs, sending their kids to integrated schools and driving expensive cars. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, like her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, was in visible and important policy-making positions in the Bush administration. There are dozens of black members of Congress, state legislators and mayors - even a governor.

Then there's Obama mania. The presumption is not only that Sen. Barack Obama should run, but that he can win, and that he will get the votes of millions of whites.

When race is filtered through the distorted prism of black people who are rich and famous, racial problems seem overblown, and those who complain about them seem afflicted with a bad case of racial paranoia.

On the other hand, many blacks erroneously assume that whites live an Ozzie and Harriet life of bliss and are immune from personal and social angst. Many also assume that most whites, solely because they are white, are well-to-do and privileged. They don't recognize that millions of whites are also trapped in a downward cycle of need and poverty, and have about as much chance of crashing into America's corporate boardrooms, joining university faculties and getting elected to Congress as poor African-Americans.

The CNN poll is the latest of many polls that show that when the issue is race, different races see the problem much differently. But the CNN poll also showed that blacks and whites were at least willing to acknowledge that race is a lingering problem in America, even though most were adamant that it was someone else's problem. In an odd way, maybe that confusion represents some progress in how black people and white people think about race. It certainly beats denial.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social commentator, and the author of "The Emerging Black GOP Majority." His e-mail is hutchinsonreport@aol.com.

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