|July 2, 2000
America, Seen Through the Filter of Race
The New York Times series "How Race Is Lived in America" has explored the
effects of racial differences on people's lives in schools, workplaces, the
military, churches and other institutions. Today's Op-Ed page is given over to
readers' thoughts prompted by the series. They were selected from
submissions to the page, some of which were solicited by the editors.
Robert L. Johnson is chairman of Black Entertainment Television.
I own a farm in Middleburg, Va., where I have a stable with about 16 horses. One morning,
I called down to the grooms to say that I wanted to ride that day, and I walked down from
the house to the stables, wearing jeans, boots and a polo shirt. That morning, a plumber was
working on the water system for the stables. He was a white man who I would estimate was
in his 40's.
Next to the plumber was a yellow bucket and a mop, of the sort you might see in an office
building when the janitors are cleaning up after hours. The plumber saw me coming,
gestured to the bucket and said, "If you're here to mop the stables, you'd better get moving
now before I have to shut off the water."
The groom saw all this happening, and he looked at me and I looked at him, and it dawned
on the plumber that he had mistaken the owner of the place for a stable hand. He was
That's the racial divide to me: Here is a white American who never could have imagined that
a black man could own this property. It just didn't compute in his mind. He wasn't trying to
be racist; he was trying to be helpful, as if to say, "You've got a job to do, and I've got a job
to do, and I don't want my work to get in the way of yours." I could have gotten mad at him,
could have called him a racist and chased him off my property, but that wouldn't have
This sort of thing happens to African-American professionals often. I was once leaving the
Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, dressed in a blue blazer, white shirt and gray slacks. My
Jaguar had been brought up from the garage. As I walked out to it, an elderly white woman
followed me, and as I opened the front door, she opened the back door, thinking that I was
her chauffeur! She had probably asked the front desk to call for a car and then saw me and
thought: black man, blue jacket, gray pants -- must be my driver. Like the plumber, she
didn't mean to be racist, but the assumptions were just there.
What came out in these people -- the plumber, the elderly white woman -- was a latent
definition of what a black person is, a definition that bubbles up and overtakes everything
else. It doesn't matter how much a black American achieves; to many white Americans you
will only be seen for your skin color. This is a racial divide that a white American will never
see and one that I don't think you can ever close.
Beverly Daniel Tatum is dean of Mount Holyoke College and author of "Why Are All
the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?"
Many white people think of racism as a problem of individual bigotry and hatred, while
people of color often understand it as an intricate web of individual attitudes, cultural
messages and institutional practices that systematically advantage whites and disadvantage
people of color. If you believe that individual acts of meanness are the problem, then the
solution is individual acts of kindness -- polite, respectful behavior, maybe even friendly
outreach. White students often use that strategy to connect with black classmates. In a study
of undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley, sociologist Troy Duster found
that white students wanted more opportunities to just "hang out" with black classmates,
having lunch or going for pizza.
But if your understanding is that a system is operating to reinforce cultural stereotypes, limit
opportunities and foster a climate in which bigotry can be expressed, then the solution is a
concerted daily effort to interrupt that system. It means objecting to jokes, challenging
policies, advocating for greater inclusion. It requires more than being nice, and the black
students were not so interested in sharing pizza, but in engaging white classmates in a
structured dialogue about race relations.
Cassandra Garbus is a teacher in New York City.
As a white woman teaching Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" this past year in an Upper East
Side private high school, I found that a number of my white students believed racism no
longer existed. "We've talked about this so many times before," a girl in black Prada pants
said as we began to discuss the book. "Slavery was over a hundred years ago."
"Now it's white people who are discriminated against," said a boy with bleached hair. "Who
has an easier time getting into college?"
Other whites feared race as a touchy subject. "I'm always afraid something I say might be
taken the wrong way," one girl admitted.
Recalling times they felt invisible with their parents or at school gave them a point of entry
into the book. We pressed on, dissecting the symbolically loaded dream in which the narrator
receives a document that says, "Keep This Nigger Boy Running," and the grandfather's
advice on how to deal with white people: "Overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with
grins, agree 'em to death and destruction."
There were two people of color in that class. One kept silent and the other spoke up only
once. "I'm the one who's invisible," she said. "You all don't know anything about this."
There was silence, then a couple of kids joshed her: "Ahhhh." When she laughed, the
"Maybe none of us has a right to talk about this book," the white girl who had made the first
confession of discomfort said. "Maybe we've all been too sheltered." At least, they were
admitting how little they knew.
Ward Connerly is the chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and author of
"Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences."
On St. Patrick's Day three years ago, I addressed a group of predominantly white
supporters. I told them that California Gov. Pete Wilson had wished me a "Happy St.
Patrick's Day, as one Irishman to another." There was a burst of laughter. I had anticipated
that reaction, and my response was immediate: "Why did you laugh?"
I sensed that my question caused some discomfort, so I quickly took them out of their misery
by telling them: "You laughed because it seems odd that a brown-skinned man acknowledges
his Irish ancestry. Although we say that America is a melting pot, we still conduct ourselves
according to the 'one-drop' rule.
One drop of black blood and you are 'black.' Everything else is blotted out, erased from
Sometimes, the reaction to this acknowledgment of coming from the melting pot is innocent
laughter. The reaction can be racist and mean, and the source is not white racists, but "people
of color." After Tiger Woods identified himself as "Cablinasian" (a mixture of Caucasian,
black, Asian and Indian), some black comedians mocked him in their routines. In what
passes for comedy, I have heard some say, "If Tiger thinks he's a 'Cablinasian,' wait until
the police pull him over because he's black." Other, more racist comments have been directed
at Mr. Woods's Asian background.
Despite these frequent skirmishes about "racial" identity, I am optimistic. After I completed
my St. Patrick's Day address, a white man approached and said: "I am glad you said what
you did. I laughed along with the others, but your point was an excellent one. I'm part Irish
and part Italian. No one would laugh if I mentioned that. And I somehow felt a closer
connection to you once I became aware of our mutual Irish background, which I probably
share with many people we call 'black.' "
Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University.
When Bill Cosby's son, Ennis, was murdered in Los Angeles a few years ago, I recall that
lots of people, from taxi drivers to talk show hosts, initially assumed that the murder had to
have been drug-related. Even the son of the beloved Bill Cosby, a doctoral student who had
simply stopped by the side of the road to fix a flat tire, wasn't safe from stereotyping.
When his murderer was identified as Mikail Markhasev, a sullen-faced young Russian man
with a criminal record, some in the press reacted as if it were impossible for a young Russian
immigrant to be anything other than a rocket scientist.
Blacks challenge the cultural imagination when they overcome the presumption of suspect
profile; whites challenge it when they fall from the grace of presumed innocence.
But, of course, as with all prejudicial conceptions, the big difference is one of consequence.
Racism is prejudice, or prejudgment, and thus has much in common with the coded way in
which all bias is transacted: Children bully the little kid or taunt the large one. The hearing do
not tolerate the deaf. We are blind to Asian-Americans on welfare. Spanish is not as high
status a language as French. But there are few social attributes but color in the United States
that invoke such immediate, complete and often unbreachable expectations about
socioeconomic status, criminal disposition, intelligence, credibility, health, political and
The violently patrolled historical boundary between black and white in America is so
powerful that every immigrant group since slavery has found itself assimilated as one or the
other, despite the enormous ethnic and global diversity we Americans actually represent.
This past is so influential that even today the color line rises almost to the level of taboo. And
overcoming taboo is a harder job than just overcoming a mistaken perception of another.
Jack Kemp was the 1996 Republican vice-presidential candidate and is co-director of
Today, when I speak to people of color, I am excited to see their positive reaction to the ideas
of reforming education through school choice, building real wealth by cutting tax rates,
creating personal retirement accounts, reducing entrepreneurial barriers, expanding property
ownership, and increasing access to credit and capital to get their shot at the American
Dream. These are all ideas that bubbled up from Abraham Lincoln, and they can be winning
ideas for the G.O.P. with the black community. Ownership, entrepreneurship, individualism
and upward mobility -- the heart of Lincoln's vision -- can be Republican principles and
ideas that are as timeless in America as the ideals within the Declaration of Independence
As a lifelong Republican, I believe with all my heart in the message that all Americans,
regardless of race, should have an equal opportunity to climb the ladder of success in search
of the American dream. If my party can reclaim that theme, it can reclaim the black votes it
lost two generations ago. In my opinion, we have no choice because I believe the Republican
Party will never be whole again until people of color come home to the Party of Lincoln.
Alvin F. Poussaint is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In the late 1940's I attended junior high school in East Harlem, where most kids, and most
of my friends, were black and Puerto Rican. Then I went to high school downtown, at
Stuyvesant High School, where most students (all boys then) were white. But my closest
friends -- the kids with whom I felt socially and culturally connected -- came from the
handful of black students. My modest friendships with white students, limited by cultural
and physical distance, did not extend beyond the school day. After school, I took the subway
back to my segregated East Harlem neighborhood.
There is certainly less racism now, but most city neighborhoods are still segregated, making
after-school integration difficult. And children living in the ethnic enclaves are still learning
from parents and neighbors that there are limits to socializing with schoolmates from other
This is particularly true for adolescents; just as in my day, many parents (and students, too)
fear the ramifications of interracial dating. When teenagers apply peer pressure to socialize
along ethnic lines, their attitude is partly attributable to patterns of social separation ingrained
in their communities and supported by many parents.
Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, is a congresswoman from California.
It began the morning after I won my election to Congress in 1996. The incumbent I had
beaten, Bob Dornan, charged that Mexican citizens had cast votes for me. He said that the
only way I could have won was through fraud. What was wrenching was that the House
Republican leaders believed him and investigated me and my community for 15 months.
They subpoenaed anyone in Orange County who worked with immigrants, including
Catholic Charities and a community college. They tried to reject ballots cast from households
with more than six voters, charging that bad votes were cast even by 28 nuns in a convent
and 37 marines in a barracks. They put 3,000 Hispanic voters on a "bad vote" list to try to
undo my 984-vote margin. My campaign had to go door-to-door to find these voters and get
affidavits and proof of their citizenship.
The burden of proof was on me.
I received hate letters and calls telling me to "go back to Mexico." I was born in the United
States and am proud to represent my community and my country. But when my opponents
tried to use their power to undo the choice of the people by attacking Hispanics, I felt
prejudice as I never had before.
Barbara Smith owns B. Smith's restaurants in Manhattan; Sag Harbor, N.Y.; and
I cannot count how many times when I was traveling first class on an airplane that someone
white sitting next to me asked, "Do you work for the airline?" Or you tell someone you own
a restaurant, and it is assumed that it has to be a soul-food establishment, never a
white-tablecloth, upscale eatery.
When you are not recognized in an upper-end establishment, you are overlooked until
someone recognizes you. Then the entire staff falls over itself trying to undo the indifferent
or wary attitude that came from assuming you were incapable of affording the items in this
store. These injustices or preconceived attitudes are magnified exponentially if you are a
large, dark-skinned, assertive black man like my husband.
But I also see a growing group of enlightened people who are beyond the stereotypical racial
attitudes, and they give me a renewed sense of hope.
Linda Chavez is the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and the author of "Out
of the Barrio."
I am Hispanic by choice. My father's family came to what is now New Mexico from Spain
via Mexico in the early 1600's. But my mother's family came to America from England and
Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Because I have my father's dark hair and eyes, the choice to be Hispanic was not entirely
voluntary in my early years. Certainly the prejudices of the 1950's would have made it
difficult for me to be accepted as just another Irish- or Anglo-American kid. I thought of
myself simply as Spanish, not English or Irish or even of mixed background.
When I married in 1967, I could have adopted my Jewish husband's name and become just
another vaguely ethnic American. But I didn't.
I was -- am -- a Chavez.
But my three sons bear their father's surname. Ethnically, they are only one-quarter Hispanic
and think of themselves simply as American.
My oldest married a Southerner, whose roots in America are so deep as to have obscured
their origin. Their daughter has her father's dark eyes, but her mother's fair skin and
chestnut hair. My middle son married a woman whose father came from Cuba and whose
mother came from Ecuador. Their daughter is likely to be far more immersed in Latin culture
than her own father was.
Yet to those who talk and write about Hispanics in America, my two granddaughters, my
three sons and I are more or less equally Hispanic. It makes little sense. With one of every
three young Hispanics marrying outside the group, intermarriage has become so pervasive
that in a generation or two the very notion of Hispanic ethnicity should have no more
meaning than Irish or German or Italian ethnicity does now.
Shared Prayers, Mixed
Blessings by Kevin Sack
Best of Friends, Worlds
Apart by Mirta Ojito
Which Man's Army by
Steven A. Holmes
Who Gets to Tell a Black
Story? by Janny Scott
A Limited Partnership by
At a Slaughterhouse, Some
Things Never Die by
When to Campaign With
Color by Timothy Egan
Reaping What Was Sown
on the Old Plantation by
Growing Up, Growing
Apart by Tamar Lewin
The Hurt Between the Lines
by Dana Canedy
The Minority Quarterback
by Ira Berkow
Guarding the Borders of the
Hip-Hop Nation by N.R.
Why Harlem Drug Cops
Don't Discuss Race by
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