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Unearthing an Unspoken Rage : Ellis Cose Explores the Anger of Black Professionals Feeling Stymied by Racism

March 03, 1994|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A hushed conflict simmers, a disquiet of a difficult sort, hard to discern, even harder to rectify. Underneath, however, it rages.

In his new book, "The Rage of a Privileged Class" (HarperCollins), Newsweek essayist Ellis Cose sees what he terms a broken covenant as the root of the often unspoken rage among many African American professionals. It is, says Cose, "a serious American problem: . . . the broken covenant of the pact ensuring that if you work hard, get a good education and play by the rules, you will be allowed to advance and achieve to the limits of your ability."

Successful by outward appearances and ever striving, many African Americans box daily (and inwardly, most times) with a subtler hue of racism, discrimination and alienation set deep within corporate America's concrete core. So many have found that no matter the background or the physical trappings--Coach bag, tony address, season tickets to the opera--somehow they will never be allowed the same perks and privileges afforded their upwardly mobile white colleagues.

Whether persistently passed over for promotion, locked into a "black job" (community affairs director, for example) or blatantly not invited to the country club, many black professionals choose silence, rather than make waves, and mark time until they explode.

Cose conducted a series of interviews with black professionals--many who hold Ivy League degrees, take home upward of $50,000 annually and excel in a myriad of professions from law and academia to journalism--to confront the sobering reality of the post-civil-rights landscape. Although some African Americans reaped rewards, thus gaining access to a once-off-limits world, Cose asks why "a full generation after the most celebrated civil rights battles were fought and won, are Americans still struggling with basic issues of racial fairness?"

Attempting to square promise with reality centers this flame of rage.

"Instead of 'things' happening, instead of careers taking off," writes Cose, "blacks are being stymied. They are not running into a glass ceiling . . . but into one made of cement and steel . . . "

Cose forages for answers or, at the least, primes the debate.

Race does matter, its hold on public consciousness, not a phantom, but quite real. So, too, is the fear that vocalizing inequities could damage, if not cost, a career.

Question: At the heart of the book is the whole question of America's difficulty addressing discrimination and racism. What do we have the most trouble talking about?

Answer: I don't think we have trouble talking about race. I think we have trouble talking about it intelligently. . . . We tend to talk in stereotypes, or in sound-bites, or from behind huge defenses we've erected . . . . People don't see the same reality. You almost get into this caricature of a conversation .

You have whites going through all kinds of contortions trying to prove that they aren't racist . . . that what you think is racist isn't racist. And then you have blacks going through the opposite sort of dance . . . . So you have people who . . . connect with somebody of another race as a representative as opposed to as a person .

Q: So many black professionals end up serving as cultural ambassadors or are seen as something as separate and apart from the rest of the race?

A: Sure. . . . Given the way things have worked in this country, it is much more likely that blacks are going to know whites, than that whites are going to know blacks. So you are forever having blacks put in this situation of having to sort of explain black people to white people. . . . Because of the misperceptions, because of the stereotypes . . . it's no surprise that you have a hell of a time having an intelligent conversation.

Q: You write that "creating a color-blind society on a foundation saturated with the venom of racism requires something more than simply proclaiming that the age of brotherhood has arrived." It's often difficult for a person of color to explain just why such a society is not a realistic possibility.

A: Yes. And it's so hard to cut through. Part of the reason why so many people who are white want to declare that society is color blind is because they are most commonly the ones who are blamed for being racist. To be a racist is to be a bad person--and they're not bad people . . . they are "color blind . " . . . People will say: "I'm not racist, but . . ." and the "but," inevitably (precedes) something that you would think was racist. . . . But (since) they started off by saying "I'm not racist," it's like this magic incantation: All of a sudden it makes everything perfect.

*

Cose says he didn't want to write a book that could be misconstrued as a treatise stating that the sole barrier blocking blacks from mainstream success was racism: "Because that's too easy to dismiss. . . . It isn't so. In a sense it's a much more subtle reality."

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