Tails, you're racist. That seems to be the basic indictment of us white guys espoused by virtuous black people like Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, Carl Rowan, and Willie Brown.
The same indictment is also parroted by a lot of virtuous white guys (and women), some of whom apparently feel that their best shot at avoiding the suspicion of racism in themselves is a hair-trigger readiness to impute racism to others.
Among the recent developments that bring these thoughts to mind are the furor over the famous Texaco tapes, the publication of Rowan's new book, the success of black congressional candidates in majority-white districts this year, and the California referendum barring racial preference.
Shelby Steele, a leading black critic of preferences, suggested a useful framework for making sense of these developments before most of them had occurred.
"Whites on the left tend to recompose their vulnerability to the stereotype of whites as racists into an exaggerated deference toward minorities," Steele wrote in the Oct. 7 New Republic. "Preferences give liberal whites the chance to show deference to black victimization, and they give the black leadership the chance to keep asserting that racism is the main problem that blacks face."
Consider the tale of the Texaco tapes. They were surreptitiously recorded at an August 1994 meeting in which top executives discussed a discrimination suit by nonwhite employees. The executives spoke at length about destroying relevant documents. What magnified this from an important story about possible obstruction of justice into a national sensation was a Nov. 4 report by The New York Times. It said that top Texaco executives had been caught on tape "belittling the company's minority employees with racial epithets," including "nigger," and with phrases like "black jelly beans."
But a week later, an expert retained by Texaco found-based on digital enhancement of the barely intelligible tapes-that while there were some crudely insensitive references to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the tapes contained neither the word "nigger" nor any other racial epithet and the talk of "black jelly beans," it now appears, did not necessarily reflect an intent to disparage. It was, rather, a somewhat ambiguous-possibly disparaging, possibly innocent-succession of references to a jelly-bean analogy used by a diversity trainer hired by Texaco.
You might have thought that the uproar would have been muted a bit by this evidence-unrefuted, so far-that there were mo racial epithets on the tapes. You would, of course, have been wrong.
Denunciations of racism at Texaco only increased. The apparent absence from the tapes of the word "nigger'-the word largely responsible for provoking the initial uproar-was now deemed of no consequence. Indeed, publications like The New Yorker and The National Law Journal continued to imply that the tapes contain racial slurs.
Malcolm Gladwell's smarmy little piece in the Nov. 25 New Yorker, for example, was so artfully (or sloppily) written that its first page would have led reader to believe that "nigger" was in fact on the tapes. Gladwell then sneered at the Texaco expert's efforts to correct the record as "highly entertaining," and covered his bets by adding: "How much does it really matter, after all, whether or not the Texaco executives had used the word 'nigger'?"
Shades of the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a black teen-ager became a cause célèbre by claiming that she had been raped by a group of white man. But she remained a cause célèbre among black militants, academics, and their white apologists, who asked, in effect, How much does it really matter, after all, whether she made the whole thing up?
We have apparently progressed since then. In the matter of Texaco, "Kweisi Mfume explained that it was actually worse that no one had said 'nigger,' " as Michael Kelly notes in The New Republic of Dec. 9. Kelly quotes Mfume's astonishing rationale: "The pain ... ought to run even deeper than before for those who feel it, because the intent runs even deeper."
None of this is to deny the possibility that Texaco really has condoned discrimination against black employees. Some of the evidence amassed by the plaintiffs so suggests. But the famous tapes shed relatively little light on this issue. As for the company's alacrity in buying off minority employees and their lawyers on Nov. 15-with a whopping $176 million and other relief (appearing to include a tacit promise of racial preferences in hiring and promotions)-maybe it suggests that Texaco was vulnerable on the merits. Maybe, on the other hand, it suggests only that Texaco had such a big PR and jury-appeal problem on its hands that the merits became irrelevant. I don't know for sure, and I'll bet Jackson and Mfume and Gladwell don't either.
But the eagerness of such critics to pronounce Texaco a racist company, based on reported comments by two or three executives, some of which have teen exposed as apocryphal, speaks volumes about the critics' commitment to due process and open-mindedness. So does their eagemess to extrapolate from the unproven premise that Texaco is a racist company to the unwarranted conclusion that this is a racist country.
The same message pervades Carl Rowan's book, The Coming Race War in America. It reeks of race-baiting while preaching against it. This syndicated columnist and author draws a bogus parallel between black bigots like Louis Farrakhan and white "hatemongers" (as Rowan calls them) whose sin seems to be disagreement with Rowan's policy views.
Rowan's most egregious choice for inclusion in his "hatemongers" gallery was columnist Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, an often incisive critic of conservatives and liberals alike. Rowan smeared Cohen as a "Jewish polarizer" and an "enemy of black people" for having the temerity to question racial preferences and the welfare culture, and to criticize the fellow-travelers of the Jew-bashing bigot Louis Farrakhan.
Such trips did not prevent Rowan's book from collecting flattering book-jacket blurbs from people like Myrlie Evers-Williams, the national chair of the NAACP, and Johnnie Cochran Jr., the race-baiting defense lawyer for O.J. Simpson.
Meanwhile, the claim that white Americans are hopelessly; racist was diminished last month by the re-elections off all five black members of Congress who ran in districts in the south that had recently been redrawn (under court order) to eliminate black voting majorities.
These victories were supposed to have been impossible. After the Supreme Court's decisions curbing the use of racial gerrymandering to create majority-minority voting districts, Jesse Jackson had forecast "a kind of ethnic cleansing." Laughlin McDonald, the ACLU's longtime top voting rights litigator, had slammed the justices for gutting the Voting Rights Act and ushering in a "return to the days of all-white government."
The 1996 elections proved them wrong. But of course, they have admitted no such thing. Rather, they attribute to the advantages of incumbency the victories of black candidates who they had earlier suggested could not win white votes under any circumstances. They also stress the truism that racial bloc voting by whites to some extent persists-a phenomenon that they deplore as racist even as they seek to foster the more pervasive racial bloc voting by blacks.
Across the country, other liberal race theorists were denouncing as racist and divisive the voters' adoption of the California Civil Rights Initiative, which banned discrimination (including "preferential treatment") on the basis of race or sex in state programs.
Putting aside the incongruity of arguing that it is racist to ban racial discrimination, it is quite clear that almost all of the race-baiting during the CCRI campaign was coming from CCRTs liberal opponents.
It came from people like Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, who even stooped to trashing as "idiot children" the offspring of CCRI co-author Glynn Custred; like Los Angeles City Councilor Richard Alarcon, who compared CCRI to Mein Kampf; from anti-CCRI leader Pat Ewing, who likened CCRI's leading black supporter, Ward Connerly, to former Klansman David Duke; from opponents like the Rev. Amos Brown, who attacked Connerly as a face traitor and an "Uncle Tom."
There is still plenty of white racism in this country. But there is a lot less than in the past, and if has been driven underground. On the other hand, black bigotry and the stereotyping of whites as racists are openly espoused by so-called leaders of the black community. Lamentably, they appear to have a receptive mass audience, judging by reactions to the O.J. Simpson case.
And somehow, the respectability of people like Carl Rowan and Willie Brown seems to survive their descent into race-baiting. I, for one, am sick of it, and of them.