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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Two Great Minds Hash Out Issues of Racism in Our Time : THE RODRIGO CHRONICLES: Conversations About America and Race, by Richard Delgado , New York University Press, $27.95, 340 pages

June 01, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here are two stories about America:

1. Racism is and always has been a stain on the nation. After the wars against Native Americans and Mexicans, various anti-Asian outbursts, 250 years of black slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow, things got better for minorities--for a little while. But now the majority is economically pinched. Today's fashionable worries about immigration, affirmative action, big government, welfare and crime are at least partly camouflage for whites' ruthless, if only half-conscious, struggle to stay on top.

2. As George F. Will wrote in a recent Op-Ed column in The Times, it's not true that "America's principal problem is racial. . . . What is called the race crisis is a class problem arising from dysfunctional families and destructive behaviors." Legal obstacles to racial equality have been removed. Attempts to push further--to ensure minorities equal outcomes in life as well as equal opportunities--ignore merit, encourage dependency, hurt business, fuel backlash and feed government power.

Which story is true? Or truer? Does it matter?

Yes, says University of Colorado law professor Richard Delgado, who along with Derrick Bell has been a proponent of "critical race theory" in legal studies. They say the stories a society tells about itself can be more important than the laws it passes. The stories determine which laws get passed and--in the realm of civil rights--which are seriously enforced.

"The Rodrigo Chronicles" is Delgado's attempt to tell America's story. It's a heavily footnoted work of scholarship, but it's also a novel in which two "intellectuals of color"--the narrator, a middle-aged law professor, and his youthful protege, Rodrigo Crenshaw, half-brother of the fictional "lawyer-prophet" Geneva Crenshaw in Bell's book "And We Are Not Saved"--sit down and hash out the issues of our time.

The form is not unlike that of Plato's "Dialogues." Ideas occupy the foreground, but portraits of the thinkers emerge, too. The professor is a "battle-scarred veteran of many defeats" in the civil rights arena. Rodrigo is fiery and brilliant, an African American whose Italian education makes him even more of an outsider. As they eat, drink coffee and argue, a touchy but warm friendship develops.

*

For all its intellectual exuberance, this is an angry and often gloomy book. No brief review can sum up these nine wide-ranging "chronicles," or conversations, but here are a few of the things Rodrigo and the professor say:

* Equal opportunity is a sham if it doesn't bring equal results.

* "Neutral" hiring is often a sham because neutrality is defined by unspoken, even unconscious norms that America's racist history has shaped. The result: "affirmative action for whites."

* The United States desperately needs fresh thinking to solve its problems. Minorities can best supply such thinking; to exclude them is suicidal.

* The actual role of the legal system isn't to eliminate racism but to keep it at a tolerable level. For minorities, it doesn't matter much which political party is in power.

* We hire cops and build prisons to contain black and Latino crime, but majority crime is a bigger problem. White-collar chicanery bleeds more money from the economy than street heists; corporate malfeasance kills more people than gangs.

* Prejudice is so advantageous to the majority, so deep-seated, subtle and adaptable, that we may never get rid of it--though we shouldn't stop trying.

In short, Delgado is telling us Story 1. This is good, because tellers of Story 2, such as Dinesh D'Souza, Allan Bloom, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele and Charles Murray, have had the stage pretty much to themselves in the last 15 years. The nation's most vital ongoing debate has become dangerously one-sided.

Conservatives, of course, will find little comfort in "The Rodrigo Chronicles." But neither will white liberals. Delgado confirms their gut feelings--for example, that Proposition 187 and the proposed California anti-affirmative action initiative are racist at bottom--but he also reminds them of how much even their "enlightened" thinking is warped by the assumptions of privilege, and of how readily, given half a chance, they cock an ear to the stories of the other side.

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