Striking the Colors

President Clinton's initiative on race provided still another opportunity for the op-ed assassins -- radicals, liberals, moderates and conservatives -- to chew off pieces of his ears and spit them on the canvas. Mike Tyson's cannibalism was a mild expression of resentment, compared with the feeding frenzy that ensues when the press gets a taste of the president's blood. In a media culture that prizes insolence and verbal hydrophobia, the edible president is naked lunch for every would-be Mencken with enough teeth to break the skin.Hypocritical, cynical, condescending, superficial, theatrical, insincere, naive and calculating they called him, just for appetizers. If race is the issue Clinton has chosen to secure his place in history, I advise him to schedule regular blood transfusions and take a long, long view. If he made all the right moves -- in the eyes of future historians -- it might be 30 years before anyone gave him credit. It's our conditioned reflex to sneer when the president appoints a panel and asks it to direct a dialogue, when he calls for national town meetings instead of petitioning Congress for more money to fight poverty and discrimination.Yet he's on the right track when he identifies the stalled dialogue -- the rhetorical stalemate -- as a place to begin. Who denies that welfare and affirmative action are patronizing, unfair, unsatisfactory? On the other hand, they represent the white establishment's attempt to take responsibility for the consequences of a century of racist oppression. The arguments for and against these programs are essentially philosophical, not political. It's a universal human dilemma, trying to maintain your personal dignity without surrendering your mealticket -- your fair share. But dignity is a great luxury for the poor.Race is a debate that resists our best prose and our best intentions. No one in this country is quite honest about race, at least not in public. For obvious reasons, white reactionaries dismiss racism as ancient history, something unpleasant that occurred in Jurassic time. For obvious reasons, black activists call it the great open wound that's bleeding America white.Actually it's neither, here in 1997. We hesitate to claim racial progress because all the most positive assessments, over the years, have been identified with white denial and right-wing apologists. But for all the misery and discouragement racists still inflict, racial progress is manifest in America. At the risk of my own ears, I can't help calling attention to it. I can spare a little cartilage if it helps to break the logjam.We're stuck forever, if each expression of hopefulness is shouted down as a trivialization of slavery, segregation and the tragic history of African Americans. So let's begin by agreeing: No genocidal war, no Holocaust represents a more profound crime against humanity than the one these people suffered. No apology from the president, no 5 to 10 trillion dollars in reparations (by a recent calculation) could make a dent in the collective guilt of the society that condoned it. You can't get your mind around the racial history of the United States -- the relentless meanness, on top of the cruelty and violence -- unless you believe in a literal Devil."As a great-grandchild of Alabama slaves, I'm appalled by historical injustice," writes "Chicago Tribune" columnist Clarence Page. "But I'm more urgently concerned with the actions Americans take today." Read Toni Morrison's "Beloved", take a deep drink of guilt and horror, shudder, remember. Then shake it off and look around. It's 1997; half the people who maintained those separate drinking fountains are still alive. If there was incredibly little change between 1865 and 1965, it's incredible how much has changed since. A new Gallup poll of white Americans found that 93 percent would vote for a black president (against 35 percent in 1958) and that 61 percent accept interracial marriages -- up from an invisible four percent in 1958. Would 60 percent of African-American parents give their blessing to a child who married white? Forty years ago, a tolerant view of mixed marriages was so radical that people might burn your barn for expressing it in public.Attitudes are one thing. Jobs, dollars and education are another. You've seen the ugliest statistics: Whites earn nearly twice as much, per capita, and the black unemployment rate -- 11.6 percent -- is more than double the white one. But there are other statistics. Eighty-five percent of blacks now finish high school, 32 percent go to college. Two-thirds of black college students attend the school that was their first choice. Black women earn twice as many law and medical degrees as they earned 20 years ago. Even black men, that most depressed of demographic groups, earn 20 percent more bachelor's degrees than in 1976, while white males earn four percent fewer.You can find a depressing statistic to counter every hopeful one, and someone will. But don't tell me there's no relevant change out there. A man I knew in college, a blueblood WASP if there ever was one, spent his whole career at American Express and had every reason to believe he'd be CEO someday. Instead, when the top job turned over last year, he found himself working for a black man, promoted from a lower rung on the ladder.Try to imagine that in 1965. And decisions like the one at American Express are becoming less symbolic and deliberate, much more a matter of course. The media still take a frantic, tabloid "First black this, first black that" approach to every breakthrough. But most corporations are learning quietly that color-blindness is good business.The ground is shifting. The United States is a nation of immigrants, an assimilating place by its nature. Militant multiculturalism holds no more promise for the future of America than the Anglo monopoly it's trying to tear down. Certainly it's insulting to compare the black experience with the experience of other immigrants; Africans arrived in chains. But generations of Americans who know nothing of slavery or Jim Crow laws only see black people as an increasingly familiar presence, in increasingly prominent roles.In the days of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson it was color that was the focus, white people defining black achievement. Whites today trust black celebrities -- Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey -- to interpret the world for them. Oprah's no Sojourner Truth but she's no Aunt Jemima, either. None of those white housewives in her congregation will raise their children to be Klansmen. It's still politically incorrect to acknowledge it, but post-Jim Crow America has begun to assimilate black people according to familiar patterns.Among Jews the patrician Spanish Sephardim came first, followed by cultured Germans and finally Russians and Poles. Northern and mainland Italians were accepted before those waves of hungry Sicilians; Irish Protestants were mainstream when Irish Catholics were still despised. Some of the first blacks to prosper were West Indians, with their exotic accents and the confidence of growing up where black people ruled. Then doors opened to lighter-colored people, educated people, people with white-collar occupations. Athletes and entertainers made their own way.Even the most profound prejudice enjoys a limited shelf life in America. The polygamizing Mormons, hounded to the extreme fringe of American society a century ago, are now almost at its center. I'm convinced that a great majority of white people are already comfortable with middle-class blacks, whose lives resemble their own. Xenophobia breeds in isolation and ignorance, and the Gallup poll revealed that 60 percent of America's black population lives in neighborhoods that are at least half white. Most of that poll's respondents, black and white, claimed close friends of the other race.A generation from now, a true racist -- someone motivated to avoid or harm another citizen because of that person's color -- will be a rare bird in America. (A generation further, and whites are no longer a majority.) Racism has become a specialty, where once it was a norm. Like smoking, it's become a nasty habit that can isolate you, where once it was a social bond. But institutional racism left a devastating legacy in the urban ghettoes and the black underclass that inhabits them. This underclass, chronically dysfunctional and, in terms of assimilation, virtually indigestible, is the real bone of contention between liberals and conservatives, and the primary source of infection for racists of both races.It takes more than money or good will to lift up people whose resentments far outweigh their aspirations, a group with a defiant, self-destructive subculture hardened by misery -- a subculture, incidentally, almost as alien to the black middle class as it is to whites. White liberals are scandalized by black Republicans, and accuse them of abandoning these less fortunate brothers. But there's a recognizable logic when a Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas replies, "Your grandparents created this, not mine. You figure out how to fix it."That's where the dialogue shuts down. What does it take to reanimate it? Duke's John Hope Franklin is a good appointment to head the president's panel, not only for his stature but for his eight decades of perspective. Dr. Franklin remembers the devil with all its teeth and claws: A white mob burned his father's house and law office in Tulsa, in 1921. Unlike faculty-lounge separatists who write valentines to Snoop Doggy Dogg, he knows a real white devil when he sees one. He should be able to recognize real changes, too.

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