The Problem Of The Color Line

Here's a riddle: why was the internationally known Princeton professor stopped for driving too slowly on a street where the speed limit was 25 miles per hour? How come a Maryland state trooper demanded to search the car of a lawyer who graduated from Harvard? And why were an accomplished actor, a Columbia administrator, a graduate student and a merchandiser for Donna Karan arrested together in New York although none of them had done anything wrong?

The answer is elementary: all of the men were black. In some twisted sense, they were the lucky ones. They were only humiliated. Not, like Rodney King, beaten bloody. Not, like Abner Louima, sodomized with a broken broomstick. Not, like Amadou Diallo, killed in a gray blizzard of bullets.

The verdict is in. The jury has spoken. The death of Diallo, a hardworking African immigrant, was adjudged a terrible accident, not murder, not manslaughter. Louima's assailant is in jail. Two of the officers who beat King went to prison. There have been commissions, investigations, demonstrations, public reaction, prayer vigils, op-ed pieces, television segments, classroom dialogues. And so Americans ricochet from event to event, speaking of reasonable doubt and prosecutorial competence and ignoring the big picture, the real thing, the most important issue in this country that we try not to talk about. That is, race.

"The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line," summed up W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903. How dispiriting to realize it is the problem of the 21st century as well. "Our truncated public discussions of race suppress the best of who and what we are as a people because they fail to confront the complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner," wrote Cornel West, that suspiciously slow-moving Princeton professor, in his aptly titled monograph "Race Matters." But in truth there are really no public discussions of race. There are discussions of affirmative action, and single parenthood, and, in the wake of human tragedies like the Diallo killing, of police training and procedures. These are discussions designed to cause the least amount of discomfort to the smallest possible number of white people.

Police officers are just us wearing uniforms. The assumptions they make, the prejudices they carry with them, are the assumptions and prejudices of their roots, their neighborhoods, their society. These are not necessarily the excesses of the egregious bigots, but the ways in which race changes everything, often in subtle or unconscious fashion. It is an astonishing dissonance in a nation allegedly based on equality, that there is a group of our citizens who are assumed, simply by virtue of appearance, to be less. Less trustworthy. Less educated or educable. Less moral. What we need to talk about candidly is something more difficult to apprehend than 41 shots in an apartment-house vestibule. It is the unconscious racial shorthand that shapes assumptions so automatic as to be a series of psychological tics: that the black prep-school kid must be on scholarship, that the black woman with a clutch of kids is careless instead of devoted to the vocation of motherhood. Not the shouts of "nigger" but the conclusions about everything from family background to taste in music, based on color alone, which blunt the acceptance of individuality and originality that is the glory of being human.

Some of this is easy to see, and to deride. A black electrician gets on the train at night and there is the barely perceptible embrace of purses on the laps of women around him. A black lawyer stands with upraised hand and watches the cabs whiz by. A mall security guard trails the only black customer through a store. When police officers looking for drug dealers in New York threw four professional men in jail--including, ironically, the black actor who played Coalhouse Walker, harassed by bigots in the musical "Ragtime"--they became suspects by virtue of color alone. On the highways, being stopped because of race is so commonplace that there's even a clever name for it: DWB, or "driving while black." Amadou Diallo's mother is asked to accept that the police who shot her son thought his wallet was a gun. I have two teenage sons, and when they roam the streets of New York City, I never assume that they will be arrested for something they did not do, or shot, or killed. Their wallets will be seen as wallets.

Poll after poll shows a great gap in understanding, between a white America that believes things are ever so much better and a black America that thinks that is delusional. And that gap mirrors a gap more important than numbers, between what many of us believe we believe, and the subtle assumptions that creep into our consciousness, and which we are often unwilling to admit are there. For a long time we blamed this chasm on black men and women. We who are white expected them to teach us what it was like to be them, to make us comfortable, and we complained when they did not. "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" Beverly Daniel Tatum called her book about the black experience. America is a nation riven by geographic apartheid, with precious few truly integrated neighborhoods, particularly in the suburbs. The great divide between black and white yawns wide with the distance of ignorance, and the silence of shame.

So the sophistry of the margins continues, the discussions of the LAPD or the foster-care system or the failure of black leadership. The flagrant bigotries are discussed; the psychology of how we see one another and what that does to us too often is not. The most talkative nation on earth falls silent in the face of the enormity of the failure, of being two nations across a Mason-Dixon line of incomprehension and subtle assumptions. Oscar Wilde once called homosexuality "the love that dare not speak its name." But we speak its name all the time now. Sex. Religion. Politics. We talk about them all. But what race means, in all its manifestations large and small, is too often a whisper, our great unspoken issue.