City Lit: Eyeing Race

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Quick. Can you identify the following people? Madeline Aibright? Tiger Woods? Sandra Day O’Connor? Toni Morrison? I have been reading responses of very bright college-educated people. Albright was usually recognized as the Secretary of State and O’Connor as a Supreme Court justice. But Woods was almost invariably described as a black golfer and Morrison as a black writer.

So much for ours being a color-blind society, despite what you might have heard from conservative Republicans hell-bent on undoing the legacy of the civil rights movement, and from Supreme Court justices who find it perfectly acceptable for politicians to set the boundaries of congressional districts so they protect incumbents, but not to increase the electoral chances of people of color.

Ellis Cose, a prolific writer about race and a contributing editor at Newsweek, tries to bring some honesty into the discussion with his recently published book, Color-Blind. Its subtitle states his objective while heralding the enormity of the task. Race, he observes, “is an essential part of who we are (and of how we see others) that is no more easily shed than unpleasant memories.”

His book continues a recent trend of intellectuals and journalists examining race in the post-civil rights era. Among them are Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), Jill Nelson’s Volunteer Slavery (1993) Cornel West’s Race Matters (1993), Tony Brown’s Black Lies, White Lies (1995), Manning Marable’s Beyond Black and White (1995) and, in 1996 alone, Bell’s Gospel Choirs, Michael Eric Dyson’s Race Rules, Sam Fulwood’s Waking from the Dream, C. Eric Lincoln’s Coming Through The Fire, Clarence Page’s Showing My Color and Tom Wicker’s Tragic Failure. Cose has himself contributed two books in this genre: Nation of Strangers (1992) and Rage of a Privileged Class (1993).

My shelves are groaning from the weight of all these books and, I confess, I often wonder if these authors–though earnest and, indeed, skillful–aren’t really just preaching to the choir. Is David Duke really likely to be reading any of this? Is even Newt Gingrich, for all his self-pro-claimed erudition?

There is no denying that we as a nation haven’t yet mastered the messages of these books, and that is what inspires Cose to try again. This is his critique:
“Racial crises, unfortunately, have a way of reprising themselves, if not precisely with the same notes. It is, perhaps, inevitable that they do, given that we seem to be singularly uncreative when it comes to talking about–much less dealing with–race.”

Cose attempts to offer creativity in two ways, with varying degrees of success. First, he examines how other countries, notably South Africa and Brazil, have grappled with race. Second, he offers solutions. But Cose is a journalist, not a sociologist or an anthropologist He spent less than a month in South Africa: a lot of time on one story if one is a journalist, but very little if one is claiming to be an expert. His analysis–of a move to add “multiracial” as a racial classification in the census, of presumptions about the intelligence of blacks, of the failings of the education system and of the future of affirmative action–is based on personal observations, anecdotes and interviews.

That is not to say that Color-Blind is not a worthwhile effort. To the contrary. Cose helps put the lie to the claim that the United States is ready to embrace color-blindness as a guiding principle. “Color-blindness, as it is most commonly practiced, is not a racial equalizer but a silencer–a way of quashing questions about the continuing racial stratification of the society and a way of feeling good about the fact that the world of elites remains so predominantly white.”

Cose argues, rather persuasively I think, that race neutrality, rather than color-blindness, is a more attainable goal. Race neutrality means that my blackness should not limit my ability to flag down a taxicab any more than another person’s whiteness should enhance their chances of doing so.

Cose outlines twelve steps for creating a race-neutral society, a plan so simple that I was tempted to dismiss it as the latest in New Age self-help pap. But, then, the Ten Commandments are simple, too, aren’t they–and oh so hard to abide by! Among Cose’s “commandments” are these:

    No. 1: We must stop expecting time to solve the problem for us.

    No. 4: We must end American apartheid.

    No. 6: We must replace a presumption that minorities will fail with an expectation of their success.

    No. 10: We must keep the conversation going.

Simple, yes. But maybe a reader-friendly road map leading from the tar pits of racism to the Oz of race neutrality is exactly what this country needs.

E.R. Shipp is a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist for the Daily News.

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