Across the great divide

If government programs can't solve America's racial dilemma, can love? Three new books take a fresh look at the ongoing challenge of black-and-white integration.


Gary Kamiya
October 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"Integration" is a forlorn word today. In the glory days of the civil rights movement it was a talisman of brotherhood, a call to arms that
united black and white alike. But the exhaustion and apathy that follows
long disillusionment has stripped it of its aura. It is one of those lofty
concepts that most people still nominally believe in, but in the age of
"diversity" and "multiculturalism" it has become irrelevant, even faintly
embarrassing.

Yet the integrationist dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers has
not failed. It has simply not succeeded -- and the way that it has not
succeeded has shaken the idealistic faith of its proponents. The course of
black-white relations in America has wandered into lost byways and sad
dead ends that the men and women who risked their lives in Selma and Birmingham could never have dreamed of.

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By many measures, race relations have never been better. The underclass,
with its nightmarish litany of ills, remains a huge and seemingly
intractable problem. But more African-Americans than ever have joined the middle
class. Overt acts of bigotry have been exiled to society's fringes.
Practically no whites will confess to holding racist views. And even
interracial marriages, the ultimate racial taboo, are increasingly common.

But these advances have not produced integration, as it was once assumed
they would. Blacks and whites, even of the same social class, still tend to
self-segregate. Race relations on campus and in the workplace are often
strained and distant. And the differences in attitude are even more
troubling.

There is a massive perception gap between middle-class whites --
even, increasingly, liberals -- and middle-class blacks on racial issues.
Many middle-class blacks burn with racial anger and resentment, feeling
that though they may have superficially made it into white society's
promised land, they are still not fully accepted, still subject to a
thousand racial slights and subtle insults. African-Americans often feel that try as they might, whites just don't get it. How
can a white person understand the naked, existential mark of blackness -- a
mere color so overdetermined, so stigmatizing, that simply to open one's
American door is to walk into alienation?

For their part, middle-class
whites, even liberals, are no longer as willing as they once were to extend
unlimited credit to black charges of racism. Denying that they themselves
are prejudiced, they increasingly regard what they see as the black
fixation on racism as a phantom pain that has lingered on long after the
wound has healed, and the whole array of race-conscious remedies as a cure
that is worse than the disease. Fearful of being stigmatized as racists,
and painfully aware of the still-vast gap between black and white
Americans, they rarely voice these feelings, but their suspicions, driven
underground, gradually calcify into resentment -- a resentment partially,
if not largely, responsible for the growing national turn against racial
preferences.

This racial chasm is a tragedy, for blacks and whites need each other. Like the
Platonic myth in the Symposium, they represent each other's missing halves.
The question is how to get those halves to meet.

Once, during the civil rights era, the answer seemed so clear. It was
clear to my mother, a white woman who after World War II dared to marry a
Japanese-American farm boy she met on the Berkeley campus. A few weeks ago, we were
walking along and arguing about affirmative action. She supported it; I
didn't. I was in full swing, declaiming how preferences only benefited
those who didn't need them, when something in the tone of her voice
interrupted my speech. She said, "God, we had such high hopes. And when I
see what's happened now ..." I looked over at her, and her eyes were filled
with tears.

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So our short honeymoon of racial innocence is over. The clear-cut
villains and heroes of the civil rights movement era are gone. Like a
mistrustful, wounded married couple, blacks and whites seem to have
abandoned all hope of romance, or even benign tolerance, and are just
trying to figure out how to talk to each other without making their mutual
estrangement worse.

For 30 years, the dominant story we have told ourselves about race has
been one of white guilt and black victimization. But that story is no
longer adequate -- neither to blacks nor to whites. In different ways,
three new books -- Shelby Steele's "A Dream Deferred," Tamar Jacoby's
"Somebody Else's House" and Howard Kohn's "We Had a Dream" -- challenge
that story. Refusing to dehumanize blacks by seeing them as permanent
victims and rejecting the facile white guilt that allows disengagement,
Steele's and Jacoby's books assert that America's failure to integrate is in
large part due to the moral distortions and psychological burdens created
by race consciousness -- whether '60s Black Power or liberal color-coding.
Kohn's book, an extraordinarily intimate narrative about the lives of a few
people in integrated Prince George's County, Md., eschews ideology or
univocal conclusions for psychological depth, but its idiosyncratic story
also ends up flouting conventional racial wisdom. Following early works
like Richard Rodriguez's "Hunger of Memory," and along with other recent
works like Dinesh D'Souza's "The End of Racism," Jim Sleeper's "Liberal
Racism" and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom's "America in Black and White,"
these books represent a potent revisionist attack on perhaps our most
deeply held moral orthodoxy.

Shelby Steele's "A Dream Deferred" is essentially a harder-edged and
more theoretical exploration of the ideas in his groundbreaking first book,
"The Content of Our Character" (1990). In his introduction, Steele
acknowledges that his new book contains "what I hope is a tolerable amount
of repetition." The reworking of earlier themes doesn't seem to me to be a
defect: As Steele argues, "my experience of writing about America's racial
conundrum is not unlike that of poor Sisyphus, who was forever bracing
himself for yet another trudge up the same mountain."

Steele's recurring theme has been to unmask the dubious motivations
behind the race-conscious remedies embraced by white liberals and blacks.
For Steele, '60s liberalism's "first and all-consuming goal was the
expiation of American shame rather than the careful and true development of
equity between the races." America's racial politics is lofty moral
posturing designed to assuage white guilt -- grant whites what he calls
"redemption" -- and give blacks cheap power. In the long essay that makes
up more than half the book, "The Loneliness of the 'Black Conservative,'"
Steele points out that a "black conservative" may not be conservative at
all, by conventional definitions: not necessarily a Republican, or a
libertarian, or a neocon. Rather, this despised outcast is simply "a black
who dissents from the victimization explanation of black fate when it is
offered as a totalism
-- when it is made the main theme of group
group identity and the raison d'jtre of a
group politics."

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Steele takes aim at all policies and attitudes that foreground
race. Even "affirmative" race consciousness simply reverses
and repeats the sins of racism, he argues: It locks whites into a
position of guilty superiority (guilty, since their final
redemption is forever withheld by power-mongering blacks;
superior, since black uplift is made to depend on white
largesse) and holds back blacks by forcing them to invest in
their own victimization. It allows both races to avoid doing the
hard work of actual uplift, which Steele insists can only come
from the traditional American middle-class virtues: individual
effort, education, self-improvement. (He points out that those
areas where blacks have been most successful, such as music
and athletics, are precisely those in which there are no
interventions.)

Above all, Steele argues for the power and agency of the
individual. Liberals, he argues, refuse to look at blacks as
individuals because they have bought into what he calls a
"sociological" view in which blacks are seen as "specimens."
Like Marxism, the liberal view of race is essentially
structural, not individual: Explanations involving individual
responsibility are always superseded by those based on history
-- in this case, the fact of racism. For a white to criticize an
individual black, under this theory, is to engage in "ahistorical
thinking" -- a dialectical condemnation of the sort critiqued in
Czeslaw Milosz's classic study of totalitarian ideology, "The
Captive Mind."

Even if one accepts that African-Americans' and liberals'
willingness to use blackness as a moral bartering-chip was
necessary or at least understandable as a response to racism
(Steele was more forgiving of that move in his first book; now
he regards it as catastrophic), it was always acknowledged that
at some point this hyper race-consciousness would have to be
dispensed with. But Steele is not content to wait for some
never-to-be-defined future time when blacks will be regarded
by whites as the same as everyone else, as human beings who
don't need special programs or preferences. He insists that the
time is now. He eloquently refuses to be a "black man,"
insofar as that means anything. Race, he passionately argues,
must not mean anything: "In American life race will always be
an opportunity for evil." He insists that whites practice the
Golden Rule: If they argue that affirmative action is necessary
for blacks, he asks, would they want their own children to
benefit from it? Beneath the genteel surface of his prose burns
a deep anger, a refusal to be patronized, to be turned into a
Noble Historical Exhibit.

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So far, these arguments are similar to that made in "The
Content of Our Character." But Steele, now a research fellow
at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution, takes
things one important step further in his new book: He argues
that all top-down social interventions that aim at moral
improvement, not just race-conscious remedies, are
destructive. "When redemptive liberals make interventions the
agents of change over people, they avail themselves of one of
the most popular formulas for power in the twentieth
century," he writes, comparing America's embrace of
redemptive racial politics to post-World War I Germany's
embrace of Aryan supremacy and turn-of-the-century Russia's
attempt to create a classless society. Steele calls the abstract
ideals that are to be embodied through social change
"ideas-of-the-good," and rejects them out of hand: "This kind
of 'good,' of course, is a recipe for power. The real goal of
those who espouse it is the interventionism it demands from
government ... We are fortunate to wrestle with our shame
and our ideas-of-the-good within a society that still treasures
freedom over the 'good.'"

In effect, this rules out all governmental interventions that
aim at some moral ideal. It's unclear if he has really converted
to full-bore libertarian conservatism of the Hayek-von Mises
school, as that position would indicate, or if it's just that his
evil eye for "right-thinking" liberals willing to sacrifice
principle for the racial "good" has led him to temporarily
align himself with laissez-faire doctrine. In any case, there is a
new, genuinely conservative note here not found in his first
book.

I think Steele is on shaky ground here. Bleeding-heart rhetoric
can indeed represent a kind of moral blackmail, but it's hard
to accept that all efforts at redemptive public intervention
should be ruled out. Suppose a government decides that
income disparity should be rectified by progressive taxation,
and mounts a highly moralistic PR campaign to sell this
idea-of-the-good. By Steele's argument, this would be nothing
but a naked power play intended to maximize governmental
power, one that would violate the principle of freedom. Is this
really where Steele wants to end up?

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In fact, I don't think Steele has to reject all governmental
activism to argue against race-conscious remedies. His other
points are strong enough that such a foundational argument
isn't necessary. But Steele is drawn to foundational arguments
by temperament. He always posits a principle first, and only
looks quickly at the world to see how well it conforms to it.
Almost all of his arguments are philosophical; his evidence is
largely anecdotal -- telling encounters at dinner parties, brief
conversations with a few people. This loftiness gives his
arguments both moral grandeur and admirable internal
consistency, but it can also make them feel somewhat
disembodied. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that
they are deeply embodied in his existential experience. But is
it legitimate for Steele to extrapolate out from his own
passionate beliefs that racial preferences are degrading for
all?

I think Steele overstates the destructive effect that racial
preferences have on African-Americans. People can
incorporate worse contradictions than being the recipient of
affirmative action without being degraded. I believe the most
damaging negative consequence of racial preferences is the
artificiality they introduce into race relations. We have lived
with that tortuous artifice for so long that we no longer see the
damage it has done -- the substitution of politeness for real
communication, the way it has frozen true integration in its
tracks. As Steele writes, "Once in the color-and-numbers
game, the full and complex humanity of blacks -- who they
really are and what they really need -- becomes inconvenient."

The habit of seeing blacks as a special case is hard to break. It
has goodwill behind it, as Steele acknowledges. But there
comes a time when goodwill reifies, when it becomes an
excuse for avoiding actual communication -- when the best of
intentions interfere with the possibility of moving to the next
level.

Many blacks and liberals will dismiss Steele's arguments as
reactionary and hard-hearted, or at best perverse and
counterproductive. But Steele is not a writer for today, he is a
writer for tomorrow. And just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan's
1965 warning about the crisis of the black family, once
rejected as beyond the pale, is now seen as prescient, so I
believe Steele's day will come.

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If "A Dream Deferred" is a theoretical attack on orthodox racial
thinking, Tamar Jacoby's "Somebody Else's House" is resolutely historical.
Jacoby, a former New York Times reporter who now works with the centrist Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, examines the racial history of three cities -- New
York, Detroit and Atlanta -- in an attempt to find out why the high
integrationist hopes of the civil rights movement were dashed. Her detailed
history, based largely on newspaper and magazine accounts and extensive
interviews, is an incisive, if dispiriting, portrait of the consequences of
the collision of black militancy with white liberalism.

Jacoby draws different morals from each of the three cities she studies.
New York in the idealistic Lindsay years, with its divisive fight over
school decentralization, represents "a lesson in the limits of goodwill and
sixties-style top-down engineering." Detroit, where bitter racial
divisions, a long battle over busing and the combative posturing of Mayor
Coleman Young all contributed to white flight and black rage, "is a study
in the consequences of choosing against integration." And Atlanta, which
despite apparent progress remains profoundly separated along racial lines,
poses the question "Is real integration possible in America today?"

But if the lessons are different, the mistakes Jacoby believes were made
were the same. The same pattern unfolds again and again: a failure of
leadership, both by well-meaning but misguided whites and demagogic blacks.
White leaders, anxious to achieve immediate racial progress in the wake of
riots and widening racial tension, handed a blank check to the black
community. But the only leaders who stepped forward were militants, who
were often more interested in racial posturing and amassing racial spoils
than in working together with whites to solve the black community's
problems from the bottom up. These angry -- often conveniently angry --
exponents of Black Pride, Jacoby argues, didn't really represent the
feelings of the majority of blacks, but their willingness to stand up to
the white man made them attractive, especially since "constructive,
gradualist leaders were in short supply." So the Al Sharptons and the Malcolm
Xs knocked out the Bayard Rustins and Martin Luther Kings, and set-asides
and busing were enshrined as morally untouchable policies. When whites
protested these policies, they were accused of racism. Intimidated and
increasingly resentful, they literally and figuratively withdrew, leaving
-- in the case of Detroit -- the virtually all-black inner city to wither
away. Race relations, poisoned by mutual mistrust and irresponsible
leaders, never recovered.

At times, Jacoby seems to me to push her thesis too far. For example,
she describes how Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson "was determined to overhaul
what he saw as a racist (police) force, no matter what the consequences for
the city." The chief Jackson appointed was an old college roommate with no
police experience, whom Jackson was forced to get rid of after he was
connected in the press with various scandals. Nonetheless, according to
Jacoby, Jackson had sent a message to the city's business elite "that he
was more concerned with curbing the police than pursuing criminals,"
particularly black ones. In support of this, she quotes two merchants
complaining about an unresponsive police force. "Within a few years, the
growing lawlessness forced Jackson to crack down, significantly increasing
the police department. But by then it was too late; as in Detroit, the
crime rate in Atlanta was out of sight -- by the end of the decade, the
worst in the country."

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Jacoby implies that Jackson's race-mongering "reform" of the police
department was responsible for Atlanta's soaring crime rate. But she
doesn't offer any hard evidence for this correlation. It might be that the
crime rate would have taken off no matter what Jackson did. Such arguments
sometimes give "Somebody Else's House" a tendentious feeling, as if she had
made up her mind in advance about her conclusions. In general, however,
Jacoby's interpretations of the facts seem legitimate.

The particular liberal orthodoxy Jacoby is challenging is the belief
that Black Power, for all of its excesses and corruptions, was essentially
a healthy, necessary and constructive "stage" that blacks had to go through
-- a salutary muscle-flexing, as it were. Jacoby admits that it was
probably inevitable, but she emphatically disagrees that it was either
healthy or constructive. Black Power, she argues, was all hat and no
cattle, a gestural politics that simply empowered a small handful of
connected blacks while leaving the impoverished and downtrodden inhabitants
of the ghetto to fend for themselves. And by alienating that majority of
whites who were open to the possibility of genuine integration, Black Power
prevented the kind of deep coalition-building that might have brought the
two races together.

A wearying sense of dij` vu runs through this book. Tawana Brawley, O.J.
Simpson, Ebonics, the African-American Baseline Essays, Colin Ferguson's
"black rage" defense -- all of these notorious recent racial
embarrassments, with their cast of fools, knaves and opportunists, were
prefigured in the '60s and '70s. It's worth reading "Somebody Else's House"
just for its lacerating portrayal of New York's school crisis, an episode
that permanently damaged relations between the city's blacks and Jews.
Jacoby's account cuts through the soothing historical patina that makes
idiotic racial posturing and outright thuggery seem noble after the fact.
There is no nobility here, only a grotesque morass of anti-Semitism,
meaningless "activism" and an utter lack of concern for the education of
the children. In time-honored fashion, white liberals kowtowed to the
militants. In Jacoby's account, they come across as well-meaning Neville
Chamberlains of racial appeasement.

Like Steele's, Jacoby's book might be summed up as "The road to hell is
paved with good intentions." "The liberal establishment, particularly the
media, and much of the middle class shared (New York Jews') reluctance to
say anything that might offend blacks or raise an obstacle to racial
harmony," she writes at the conclusion of her study of New York. "This
wasn't necessarily a bad impulse; on the contrary. But in New York and
elsewhere, the concern not to look prejudiced could have disastrous
consequences for race relations. By making it impossible -- unseemly and
apparently bigoted -- to talk about ghetto crime or thuggish militants, the
climate of opinion only made it harder to deal with the problems in the
black community ... Because they did not want to look 'anti-black,' more and
more whites would simply look away -- or paper over race-related problems."

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In the end, like Steele, Jacoby argues that there are no quick racial
fixes. She calls for acculturation, limited governmental intervention, an
end to color-coding and responsible leadership -- remedies, in other words,
that don't fetishize blackness, but look beyond it to our shared
citizenship and our shared humanity.

But is it really possible for blacks and whites to look beyond race? And
if they can do it in the street or the mall, can they do it in the bedroom?
How eradicable is the scar of race? These are some of the questions
explored in Howard Kohn's "We Had a Dream."

"We Had a Dream" is a one-of-a-kind book, a work of journalism that's
written like a novel, an engaged and passionate book about race relations in Maryland's Prince George's county -- "a capital of the Civil Rights Dream" -- by an ardent
integrationist who doesn't try to sanitize any of his characters, black or
white. Kohn is a talented journalist, a former investigative reporter for Rolling Stone who authored "Who Killed Karen Silkwood" as well as a beautifully elegiac memoir about his father, "The Last Farmer," that was a Pulitzer finalist. "We Had a Dream" is a marvelous feat of reporting and a complicated story that,
like life, doesn't mean any more or less than what it is. Kohn's main
characters are not "types," not representative of anything but themselves
-- in fact, they are probably more eccentric than most people, certainly in
their attitudes to race. But their very individuality, and Kohn's integrity
in presenting it, gives "We Had a Dream" its value. After all, much of what
really matters, in racial affairs as in all others, takes place far below
the official realm of ideologies and politics, in the day-to-day encounters
between people, in their likes and dislikes, their half-conscious choices.
The subject of affirmative action never comes up once in this book about
race, and you don't miss it.

But "We Had a Dream" also addresses race more explicitly. With
considerable narrative skill, Kohn cuts back and forth between two main
stories -- stories that happen to touch on the most inflammatory and
controversial racial issues in America. His purpose is to illuminate
larger social issues by focusing in on small stories. As he writes in his
introduction, "I began this book with two biases. One is that good people
matter. Fever and adrenaline aren't always on the side of the people with
guns ... My second bias is that individual actions coalesce into social
change."

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The first story is about the love affair between Bruce Gordon, the
Jewish son of a hard-headed doctor who grew up in Hillcrest Heights, Prince
George's County, and Camilla Brown, the black daughter of a theater
director who also grew up in Hillcrest Heights. Bruce and Camilla are both
endearing oddballs -- especially Bruce. A 250-pound. martial-arts specialist
and banker, a peculiar combination of racial idealism, naiveti,
fearlessness, Big Lebowski-style flakiness and machismo, Bruce revels in
his outsider status to the point where the personal and the political
become blurred: At times, one can hardly tell if he is drawn to black women
out of rebelliousness or just because that's the way his taste runs.
Camilla is a free-spirited doctor, a hippified city girl with spiritual
interests. Sweethearts at Potomac High, where they were the first
interracial couple in the school's history, they broke up in college when
"the Pink Floyd in (Bruce) sprang out full grown -- a wild, party-boy
disdain for the settled life." Before they broke up, Bruce sent Camilla a
letter in which he muses about something his father told him: "Why do you
have to marry her? Why can't she just be your mistress?" The letter seared
itself into her brain; it still bothered her even 15 years later when, out
of the blue, Bruce reentered her life.

The story of Bruce and Camilla doesn't have a fairy-tale ending -- they
try to get back together, but he ends up falling in love with another black
woman named Pat Ford -- but it's still a happy one. And although they're
subject to the usual indignities and odd looks -- and the explicit
disapproval of Bruce's crotchety dad, who has had a stroke -- race doesn't
seem to be a factor in their eventual split. Their relationship works
according to its own weird and wonderful logic, in which race is just one
strand among countless others. One of the inspiring incidents in the book
-- more inspiring because it is so simply described -- is the enlightenment
of Dr. Gordon, an enlightenment that begins with a wonderful scene in which
he yucks it up with Pat's father, another tough old coot, a retired major
also dealing with the effects of a stroke.

Woven into Kohn's meandering, satisfyingly shapeless story is the tale of
Elvira White, a fiercely outspoken,
enigmatic, remarkable black attorney whose career is spiraling downwards
just at the moment when she is applying to be a judge. White's downfall is
set in motion when she insists on the suspension of a white public defender who
reacted to harsh taunts by black prisoners by yelling, "You're nothing but
a bunch of black Sambos." The defender ends up being fired (apparently to
prevent the head of the state public defender's office from being
embarrassed), which leads to bad feelings in the office against White. Then
White has an argument with her longtime secretary about the "righteousness" of the
Los Angeles riots over the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King
(White said she could "understand the frustration of the people in Los
Angeles"). The argument ended up being written down, and the document fell into the
hands of the Judicial Nominating Commission, which was deciding whether she
would be placed on the judges-in-waiting list.

White is the most complicated and unfathomable character in the book, a
mixture of idealism and resentment, wisdom and hotheadedness. And
complicating matters even more is her peculiar involvement with the bizarre trial of
Amy Smith, a white teenager arrested after she and her black boyfriend either did or did not plot to rob and kill her father and
stepmother. Smith's alleged co-conspirator,
Derrick Jones, was killed by her father, a policeman, during the course
of the armed robbery. As Smith's attorney, White investigated the controversial
case and decided that Derrick Jones could not have plotted to kill two people he
hardly knew. She pursued a defense strategy of blaming Jones' death
on Amy Smith's father, Dennis -- asserting, with no insignificant amount of
evidence, that the policeman murdered Jones to teach his daughter a lesson.
But the judge, although noting that Dennis Smith's
testimony did not add up, found Amy guilty. After the case, attorneys in
White's office, who all along had thought she should have hung more of the
blame on Derrick Jones, began to consider reopening the trial -- by blaming Elvira
White for having committed reversible errors.

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If nothing else, White's saga reveals how complicated and murky
highly charged racial matters can be -- how rarely there are heroes or
villains. Just what happened that night at Amy Smith's house is never made
clear, although Kohn argues that most likely all three people -- Amy,
Derrick and Dennis -- were guilty. White's refusal to make Derrick Jones a
scapegoat could be seen as a principled defense of a dead man's honor -- or
as a betrayal of a client for purposes of race solidarity.

And the book as a whole leaves one with an equally cloudy picture. Two
of the most admirable people in Kohn's chronicle are an older white couple,
Merv and Dell Strickland, courageous lifelong fighters for integration --
but they begin to grow fearful when their beloved neighborhood, now
predominantly black, is beset by an increasing number of burglaries, some
violent. Even Bruce, the ultimate racial idealist, explodes in rage and
anguished confusion after being intimidated by a gang of hostile,
middle-class black kids at the mall. "Who were these little terrorists? And
what was their excuse? They had no claim to deprivation and suffering of
the type that was said to cause so many kids to go wrong ... They had no
excuse!"

Wisely, Kohn doesn't presume to say what any of this means. In his
afterword, about as much of a moral as he is willing to draw is that
interracial romance is the one sure way of breaking down racial boundaries.
"Acceptance has to come from the heart, a heart willing to be
exploratory ... Sentimentality may propel you toward the corny proposition
that racial separatism will be solved by the good will of individuals, but
what else has ever worked?" It seems as good a place as any to start.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

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