SALON Roundtable

Black and white relations have hit bottom. Where do we go from here?

Published November 12, 1995 1:06PM (EST)

Not since the civil rights alliance of the 1960s collapsed has the gulf between white and black America appeared so unbridgeable. The O.J. Simpson verdict and its aftermath--in particular the endlessly televised images of blacks celebrating an outcome that many whites regarded as a blatant, race-driven perversion of justice--seemed to announce, with shocking suddenness, that the two races lacked even a common language with which to work out their differences.

Nor did the Million Man March, following hard on the trial's heels, help to restore mutual trust. The shadow of Louis Farrakhan, and the separatist ethos proclaimed by the Nation of Islam, clouded the march's positive message of black responsibility and pride.

The Simpson case was luridly atypical -- most black defendants are neither rich nor famous, and much of society neither knows nor cares about their fates -- but it deepened the fault lines of American racial politics. Even white liberals are beginning to question whether America's legacy of oppression and racism still constitutes a legitimate reason for preferential treatment -- or an excuse for uncivil behavior. At the same time, increasing numbers of blacks are openly wondering whether the goal of integration is worth pursuing.

This is precisely why honest communication between whites and blacks is needed now, instead of the tired minuet of nervous politeness and predictable grievance. In the hopes of stimulating a genuine dialogue, SALON asked a number of commentators a simple question: How can whites and blacks begin to talk? And what should they talk about? Their answers follow.

We hope you join in the discussion.


The Panel

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a commentator and writer. He is the author of The Assassination of the Black Male Image and the forthcoming Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex and Class Lessons for America (Middle Passage Press) due out in January, 1996.

Joel Kotkin is a public policy fellow at Pepperdine University and the author of Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy (Random House, paperback, 1994)

Shelby Steele is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a professor of English at San Jose State University. He is the author of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (HarperCollins, paperback, 1991).

Richard Rodriguez is the author of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, and most recently, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (Penguin, paperback 1993). He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service.

Jim Sleeper has been a columnist at the New York Daily News and an editorial writer at New York Newsday. He is currently at work on a book about American identity. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, paperback 1991).

Patricia Smith is a poet and a columnist for the Boston Globe. She is the author of Close to Death, Big Towns, Big Talk and Life According to Motown

Stanley Crouch, essayist and critic, received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1993. His new book of essays, The All-American Skin Game (Pantheon) is due out this month.

The Discussion

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Two things have to happen to start a dialogue. Many whites have to drop their collective denial. I mean by that their belief that racism in 1995 is minor, or is not an issue at all; that it's been exaggerated by African-Americans and that in the past 15 years things moved to a more level playing field, without realizing that racism is still deep, endemic, and colors all relationships (if you'll pardon the pun). Without that understanding, people won't talk, they'll just point fingers at each other.

On the part of some blacks, there is this tendency to see race everywhere, to circle the wagons and build the fortress, and to say we don't need to address white America, because there's no point. They have to get beyond that.

If there is to be a dialogue -- and I don't see it at this point, because the denial is so great -- it has to start at an organizational level, and within local communities. These local organizations have to have legitimacy and respect. And the conversation can't be a one-shot gripe or feel-good session, but an ongoing series of dialogues. And keep the media out -- they'll just inflame the issue.

What should come out of these dialogues? A recognition of our differences, and that diversity is an American fact of life. Then we need to build some coalitions around crime, drugs, and violence -- the issues that everyone applauded when they were raised at the Million Man March. Finally, they have to address why certain problems exist: that they are not just character defects in blacks, but they reflect unemployment, negative social policies, and lack of resources in minority communities. Then maybe we can push for more resources and training, and business opportunities. But don't raise hot-button issues, like affirmative action -- you won't get anywhere.

Joel Kotkin

The real question is not whether to have a dialogue, but with whom? Who can I talk to, for example? Not anyone who endorses or is anywhere near Louis Farrakhan. To say I can sit down with him or (Rep.) Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) or Al Sharpton is garbage. They're not interested in rapprochement, but in fueling the differences for their own benefit.

Lani Guinier says she wants a "national conversation" on race, yet she wants race-based outcomes for everything -- in which case, you might as well just throw out the Constitution. And I would have a hard time talking with people who didn't care if O.J. was guilty or not, so long as they could nail the police. They have no interest in justice.

The political dialogue has crashed, opening the door for the Farrakhans. The only conversation to be had now is between individuals who share certain common values about humanity. The original movements for civil rights -- first abolitionism, later the modern civil rights movement -- had their bases in a shared belief in human and spiritual values. Perhaps Jews, white and black Christians, and Muslims (not the Nation of Islam), who share fundamental spiritual values, can talk on that basis. If we want to move beyond the current abyss we must first re-establish that element to our dialogue.

Shelby Steele

This is a low point in relations between blacks and whites. Trust -- the fundamental problem between the two groups -- is gone. Without trust, there's no possibility of communication. The sharp difference in reaction to the O.J. verdict injured that tiny little degree of trust that was there.

This society has used race as a convenient vehicle for social reform for so long -- we've had affirmative action, we've had multiculturalism, all of these well-intended things. Now all of a sudden we're shocked that there's this racial divide. Well, you can't give race that kind of credibility and power in a society without it turning on you. We're seeing the results not so much of old-fashioned racism but of race-based reforms that have given blacks an investment in their history of victimization, and have caused deep resentment in whites because they feel that preferences are working against them.

To those who argue that we must be conscious of race in order to overcome race, my response is: Then don't complain when there's a huge racial divide, when race becomes a currency of power. You can't have it both ways. Either you diminish the significance of race, or you don't. And America will soon have to decide which way it's going to go. If it continues to use race as a distinction of convenience for reform, then we'll become a balkanized society. We have to stop using race to negotiate with each other. And then we're going to be forced back onto the terrain of citizenship. To the principles of democracy, the idea that we're all citizens, rather than members of groups.

Is there reason for hope? I think we're having a bad case of race fatigue. We're sick of it. That's probably good. Certainly white America is sick of it, and I think many more blacks than people would suspect are sick of it. That gives us a chance to see the futility in it. We can't keep going around in those circles.

Richard Rodriguez

America is a much more complicated place than this black-white checkerboard suggests. In Los Angeles, a city of over three million Mexicans, most of whom are of mixed race, the notion of black and white America polarizing over O.J. Simpson is ludicrous. I don't know what these New York correspondents think they're looking at when they come out for their occasional visits and they're served room service breakfast by Guatemalans.

It occurs to me, as a brown man in America, that maybe what we are dealing with is some kind of love affair between the two races, in which they are only prepared to imagine an America peopled by each other, and anybody else becomes a kind of ménage à trois too difficult to manage. I assure you, the future looks more like Keanu Reeves than it looks like O.J. Simpson.

White attitudes towards Chinese, or black attitudes towards Chinese, are much less apparent than their attitudes toward each other. But that's also where the vanity is. Because to assume the role of victimizer is also to assume the central role in history. Whites, in part, are reluctant to give up their guilt role because then they would have to give up the notion that they are the center of all race relations in America. They cannot imagine the conflicts in San Francisco high schools between Filipinos and Samoans, for example, because they do not figure into that relationship. I keep wondering about what the new relationship is between Koreans and Mexicans in L.A. Whites are not interested in that.

For blacks, it's a convenient dialectic also. Black racism is a very complicated subject about which blacks don't like to talk a great deal. I don't know how many blacks are willing to talk about the fact that black teenagers beat up Chinese kids on the way home from school in California. You absolve yourself of a certain kind of responsibility by playing the victim in history.

And you also absolve yourself of racial complexity. Blacks have to acknowledge the fact that the white is already within them. In the same way that the Indians in Latin America who became mestizos have to acknowledge that Cortez and Columbus are within them. The externalization of the other, of the villain, is too simple. We are implicated in each other's stories now.

In the imagination of America, Hispanics are a third race, brown people coming from the south. That is nonsense. We are not a brown race. To assume that Hispanicity means a new race in America is to misunderstand the point. We represent the breakdown of racial categories, the corrosion of racial categories, not the introduction of yet another new race.

Politics is completely out of step with the culture. The fact is that Latinos are dancing to black rap and skinheads are eating burritos. America is becoming a very complicated place of passion and interrelationship. We are in each other's faces, we are influencing each other in very complicated ways. What's going on in America at the bottom is quite different from what you hear about on top.

Jim Sleeper

The current situation is really fraught with peril. Every inch that a Louis Farrakhan gains in legitimacy or strength, white supremacists gain a foot.

It has to be said at the outset that this country -- that is to say its white majority -- has blown a lot of opportunities to do better. Much of the Great Society stuff was politically narrow and subverted, corrupt. We didn't do a good job even when we were doing more than we're doing now -- and now we're not doing anything.

I don't know whether the recent events are going to predispose the white majority to make another serious effort. The effect is to drive them away. Therefore, the burden is on the black leadership to assert themselves in ways they haven't before.

Blacks, for their part, are too much caught in the posture of defiance, of being "a tree-shaker, not a jelly maker". We'll see if anything goes beyond that. I don't have some master model of how to get small business formation, home ownership and other things going in black communities. But without somebody doing that, the rhetoric is bound to degenerate more and more.

I'm a militant centrist. What I'm militant about is the notion that there is a common trans-racial civic culture worth defending and nurturing. That there is such a thing as an American identity that is thick enough for all of us to live in. And you don't have to always be labeled as black or white, or whatever. There has to be a horizon of aspiration that transcends this.

There are some constructive signs. Black and white intermarriage continues to increase, although more slowly than in the peak years of the '70s. And the other thing is that non-white immigrants are breaking down the white-nonwhite color line. The idea that you can draw a distinction between whites and people of color is completely outmoded.

Patricia Smith

Right now I don't think it's as important for blacks and whites to talk to each other as it is for blacks to talk to blacks and whites to talk to whites. Because the division in society as a whole is mirrored and intensified within each group. There's still a split within the black community between people who celebrated the O.J. verdict and those who didn't. And there's still a bitter controversy within the black community about the Million Man March, centered around Louis Farrakhan.

The same thing is true for whites. I hear a lot of "I'm not really quite sure what you blacks want anymore. It looks to us that you have access to things you never had access before." And that it's just a matter of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

On the other hand, I get calls from just insanely liberal people, where everything I say is gold and everything I say is right. It's just, "Wow, there's this black woman who writes a column for this major paper and this is so wonderful." Their arms are always open, and they shouldn't be. If there's a problem in the black community and blacks are to be blamed, then that's it.

After the O.J. verdict, I did a column in which I said that I thought he was guilty, but I had smiled along with the rest of the blacks when the verdict came down. I went out to talk to some people and they were saying "My first feeling was not whether he was guilty or innocent, it was "We never get away with anything, we never win anything." It had gotten just that bad. I was surprised at myself. I had to ask myself, what's going on? and not many people do that. I basically bemoaned the fact that we had reached the point that justice didn't matter. There was so much to be made up and there was so much bitterness that we were willing to take even a dubious victory.

We've avoided asking very hard questions of each other. People haven't really nailed down how they feel. And until that happens, you can't really go outside of your community and either extend a hand or raise a fist.

Stanley Crouch

One of the problems I have with this "need for a dialogue" is the unstated acceptance that some of us are not quite American. Yet if a black from Brooklyn puts on a dashiki and goes to Lagos, Nigerians say, "Ah, an American." If Judge Ito shows up in Tokyo, the Japanese declare, "An, an American." The most racist white from south Boston could return to the land of his forefathers, and the Irish will say the same thing, "Ah, an American."

And look at those TV talk shows! Blacks, whites, Jews, Christians, all go on these shows and achieve the same level of vulgarity and repulsiveness. The flip side is also true: Americans of different races, sexes and regions share finer qualities that make us often so charming and charismatic to others.

In other words, there is this something that connects us all, which the rest of the world recognizes, but we don't. And as long as we don't get that connection -- that sense of our collective "American-ness" that black writers like Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Constance Roarke and others talk about -- we can't really get started.

What we need to be talking about are the differing demographic relationships to quality public education, employment, street crime, and so on. That's not to deny that we have other differences. But whatever the specifics of these "race conversations" happen to be, we should never lose sight of this common American quality. We need to emphasise the things that connect us, not separate us.

Instead, we've got the descendants of European immigrants talking about the problems black Americans -- original Americans -- have getting with the American agenda. That has to be brought to a screeching halt.

By Salon Staff

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