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The Ultimate National Conversation About Race

A Roundtable

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On the day of the Million Man March in Washington, President Clinton was in Texas. But he still delivered a rousing speech on racism, imploring blacks and whites to stop the hatred that "is tearing the heart of America." He urged them to "roll back the divide" and talk to one another honestly about race. "I am convinced, based on a rich lifetime of friendships and common endeavors with people of different races," said Clinton, "that the American people will find out they have a lot more common ground than they think they do."

Clinton need not have worried. Such common ground was already being reached on the editorial pages of Chicago's daily newspapers. All year the local and national columnists in the Tribune and Sun-Times have been doggedly crafting profound analyses of American race relations. Little by little these writers are healing our wounds. But we wished they would all get together and roll back the divide. So we arranged a meeting.

Our experts are, from the Sun-Times, Dennis Byrne, Jeff Greenfield, Robert Novak, Richard Roeper, and Carl Rowan and, from the Tribune, Joan Beck, Ellen Goodman, Clarence Page, and Eric Zorn.

And now, culled from a year's worth of printed wisdom, we present the Ultimate National Conversation on Race.

I. The Juice Is Loose

Clarence Page: Racism, it often has been said, is America's original sin.

Robert Novak: We are two countries, divided not between rich and poor (as Mario Cuomo has said) but between black and white.

Eric Zorn: Racial alienation, in which perception and reality are impossible to separate, really is that bad.

Ellen Goodman: Close your eyes and close your ears and it just seeps in through your pores.

Page: If we Americans do not deal with the reality of race, our national sense of justice will unravel as swiftly and surely as the case against O.J. Simpson did.

Dennis Byrne: Disagree with the O.J. Simpson jury, you're a racist. Say you wouldn't want to associate with someone you think is a killer, you're a racist.

Zorn: It is in just such a real-life Goofus and Gallant cartoon that many white people find themselves in the wake of the Verdict.

Joan Beck: The TV images are indelible: blacks celebrating the O.J. Simpson verdict as exuberantly as if he had just made a game-winning 90-yard touchdown. Whites in stunned and troubled disbelief.

Carl Rowan: It is as though the decision makers in our media have a vested interest in fostering hatred, reserving platforms only for the biggest fools among blacks, and then wailing editorially about the "terrible racial divide."

Richard Roeper: Do they all have a special Racist Conspiracy Hotline?

Zorn: Most Americans, but particularly black Americans, are painfully aware of the legacy of racial hatred in this country and of the excesses and injustices perpetrated by the badge-wearing Mark Fuhrmans of the world.

Rowan: Who can swear that he or she has not used the word "nigger" for ten years? Not I!

Goodman: I refuse to see America as hopelessly polarized. On that there is more than enough room for reasonable doubt.

Rowan: We will survive this spasm of stupidity, emerging with many-hued hands clasped as a symbol of knowledge of our common destiny.

Roeper: We'll stay with our own kind, we'll take comfort in our similarities. It's the American way.

II. A Million Points of Light

Page: Imagine Woodstock for black males.

Byrne: Would that all white men had the guts of the black men gathering in Washington to stand up for their manhood.

Beck: Those who want to use the power of the march as a new energizing force for good for black people can find no better take-home message than these small vignettes of fathering.

Jeff Greenfield: But even to write about some of what went on that day is to constantly second-guess yourself as a white man writing about a black man's day.

Byrne: For white men or black men, what's happening is part of the same piece--a cultural climate in which owing no one has been elevated to a dogma embraced by portions of both the political right and left.

Rowan: This is just another spin on the "black intellectual inferiority" theme that has run rampant in white America recently.

Page: They also refuse to acknowledge the depths of abandonment black Americans feel in the age of angry-white-male politics in which the people in power have defined the races as competing, not cooperating interest groups.

Greenfield: If I tell you of the yearning of so many in this crowd to see themselves portrayed as something other than a predator of the streets, I am telling you about an emotion that was at the heart of this event. But I would be telling you something these men have lived with every day of their lives.

Page: Black men need therapy too.

III. Only One Can Save Us

Novak: What is needed is political leadership from someone who is credible for both races. In my talks with politicians, two names were mentioned as fitting that description: Jack Kemp and Colin Powell.

Page: For years on the political beat I have been hearing white voters say they would be delighted to vote for a black candidate, as long as it was not the black candidate that happened to be on the ballot at the time.

Rowan: Is it really likely that in a time of great division over affirmative action, of mindless fear of crime when many whites see most black men as threats, of demagoguery over immigrants, the American white majority would elect the black son of Jamaican immigrants to the presidency?

Greenfield: Doubters say, with history on their side, that subterranean racism is always a factor when a black candidate runs for an office only whites have held.

Beck: Powell's election as president would do much to defuse the racism that is--or is widely perceived to be--a dominant issue of our era.

Page: The more Americans learned about his ghetto-to-Desert Storm story, the more they liked him.

Goodman: Not a black hope or a white hope, but a hope. His not-yet-candidacy has already become an emotional magnet for racial healing.

Page: If Powell makes it to the White House, according to this popular view, it would help confirm that the American dream and its fabled meritocracy still work, that all of us, regardless of race, creed, or even gender, can get our just rewards for playing by the rules.

Greenfield: And I wish I knew how to make that feeling, and those conversations, a permanent part of the American experience.

Rowan: I sense a feeling that the paranoid, the greedy, and the bigoted have concluded that this is their era.

Byrne: When else has there been such an assemblage of opportunists, self-aggrandizers, nitwits, race baiters, blowhards, publicity hounds, second-guessers, dolts, and slugs?

Page: No, Americans are not out of the racial woods yet.

Byrne: We are in danger of turning ourselves into a nation of vigilantes, where justice is a matter of plebiscite, popular opinion, and who can assemble the bigger mob with the loudest voices.

Rowan: So much is at stake that I am now compelled to say, "General, go for it!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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