AN AMERICAN VIEW

Stoking the furnace of racial discord

It will take more than the wicked O.J. oneliners now making the rounds to repair the serious new strains in American race relations

FRED BRUNING November 6 1995
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Stoking the furnace of racial discord

It will take more than the wicked O.J. oneliners now making the rounds to repair the serious new strains in American race relations

FRED BRUNING November 6 1995

Stoking the furnace of racial discord

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

It will take more than the wicked O.J. oneliners now making the rounds to repair the serious new strains in American race relations

How do you know it’s spring in Los Angeles? Mark Fuhrman begins planting gloves. Psychiatrists say humor is therapeutic, and let’s hope they know what they’re talking about because America is wound tighter than a Sunday roast. First, there was the Simpson verdict and attendant response—jubilant blacks, indignant whites—and then the Million Man March in Washington and the ascendancy of black Muslim Louis Farrakhan. Newly minted anthropologists visited every television channel to dissect race relations and contemporary civilization. Oprah and Geraldo worked overtime. It has been exhausting. Maybe another joke?

Why didn’t OJ. show for the march? No golf carts allowed.

It’s not going to work, is it? The wicked one-liners making the rounds won’t get us through. We might blow off a little steam but the furnace of racial discord still is roaring. Americans surprised at the god-awful heat have failed to pay attention or permitted themselves to be flummoxed by the feelgood messages of politicians who claim U.S. society is clean of racial animus and that only the lazy or immoral shall not prosper. That sounds mighty slick if you’re wearing a starched white shirt and taking your lunch in the Senate dining-room; more difficult to swallow if you’re in a dingy flat pondering a can of chicken noodle soup.

But forget the politicians. They have let us down. Most have not told the truth about race, have not had the courage to tackle the central dilemma of American life. Bill Clinton gave a good speech on the day of the Million Man March but it was almost like an afterthought. The President cares about this subject and has a track record to prove it, but he was silent too long. It should not have taken Simpson and Farrakhan to get Bill Clinton in

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

front of an audience beseeching us to face facts. ‘White racism may be black people’s burden, but it’s white people’s problem,” Clinton told an audience in Austin, Tex. “We must clean our house.”

Yes, we must. White people who doubt the reality of Clinton’s belated sermon should get out of their cozy cantons and into the city—any city. They should ask themselves why the meanest streets are those on which black people live. They should wonder, as the President wondered in his address, how white people would cope under similar circumstances. Try driving through the heart of black America—through the Sowetos of the United States—and telling yourself minorities get all the breaks.

See if you still find convincing the arguments of the phoneys who say affirmative action is just reverse discrimination—that America is now a color-blind place and we merely have to sit back and let nature take its course. We tried that once and ended up with separate drinking fountains and segregated classrooms and poisonous attitudes that persist in 1995. Now, we have white people moving into gatehouse communities— these pretty, quiet sylvan outposts of privi-

lege where only the duly authorized get by the guards and where it is entirely possible to exempt yourself from the world of America as it is being lived. Have fun.

You want to talk about black responsibility? Let’s talk. Clinton hit it on the head in the speech he should have given long ago. “Blacks must understand and acknowledge the roots of white fear in America,” he said. “It isn’t racist for a parent to pull his or her child close when walking through a highcrime neighborhood,” he said. Give people reason to be afraid, they will react accordingly. And some of their fears may become exaggerated and they may begin to hunker down and they may make assumptions that are out of whack.

But none of that is racist. It is just the inevitable result of the deadly separation we allow ourselves, and which certain leaders foster. George Bush will never atone for the notorious Willie Horton ads that dominated his 1988 presidential campaign. It was like waging the Persian Gulf War against the black people of the United States. And what about presidential hopeful Senator Robert Dole chiding Clinton for failing in the Austin speech to sufficiently criticize Louis Farrakhan? Instead of saluting Clinton for finally showing leadership on an issue that is tearing the nation apart, Dole could only move to consolidate his position with the Republican right.

What to do? Clinton urged Americans to make a point of speaking to persons of other races and to be “frank and brutally honest” You’re apt to learn much that you wouldn’t otherwise have known. The other day, a white American tells a black American that he, the white, would not have gone to the Million Man March because you just can’t duck the fact that Farrakhan is anti-Semitic. And the black American, who attended the march, said the experience had been powerful—and there was a deep and touching resonance in his voice when he said that word, powerful—but that he did not support Farrakhan and doubted that many standing in front of the Capitol did. He said plenty of men rejected souvenirs emblazoned with Farrakhan’s name and said they wanted no part of the Nation of Islam. The march was not about Farrakhan, he said, it was about everything else. ‘We are smart enough to sift out the truth,” he said.

Here is something that has eluded white people forever—that black people are just as diverse and complicated as anyone else. There is no black monolith, no black conspiracy of opinion. The Simpson verdict? Start reading more carefully and you will see that plenty of blacks have doubts about his innocence, even if they feel the jury made a sensible choice. And here’s a little test. If the jury had come back in three hours with a guilty verdict, would white people have been bawling about a rush to judgment? As Clinton said in his speech, Americans better start getting honest with themselves and getting straight with one another. No excuses. No joke.