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Los Angeles Times Interview : Harlon L. Dalton : Talking About Race to Bring the Nation Together

October 08, 1995|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a producer for Fox News and contributor to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." He spoke with Harlon L. Dalton from the professor's home in New Haven, Conn

Propelled by the shock waves of the startlingly sudden "not guilty" verdicts in the agonizingly long O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, troubling questions about racial divisions in this city have once again come rattling at our doorsteps. Many residents of mostly black neighborhoods in Los Angeles cheered and gave thanks when hearing the verdict; in mostly white Brentwood, there were expressions of shock, anger and dismay. The polarization of opinion about the Simpson case--divided sharply along racial lines--is the latest reminder that, despite decades of effort to end race-based discrimination, there is still a chasm of misunderstanding between blacks and whites in this city--and in this nation.

It's difficult to think of any way the Simpson trial advances understanding between the races. Trial watchers hear the "N word" spoken repeatedly during the Simpson trial. One of the defense team's own lawyers, Robert L. Shapiro, accuses his colleagues of playing the race card "from the bottom of the deck." Listeners to talk radio hear the subject of race debated by shrill, disembodied callers who are put on the air specifically because of their extremist views. Thoughtful and intelligent discourse about racial differences seems as rare as a smog-less September afternoon.

At the heart of this dearth of meaningful dialogue between the races, says Harlon L. Dalton, is the difference in the way blacks and whites think about the very nature of belonging to a race. Dalton, 47, a professor at Yale Law School, notes that while blacks identify strongly with their race as a group, whites tend to overlook their race, and focus instead on ethnic identity. That, he says, creates a menagerie of missteps and miscommunications that perpetuate racial tension and division.

Dalton tries to bridge the racial divide in his new book, "Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites." He uses anecdotes and his own personal experience to suggest ways that whites and blacks can discuss their differences with candor and honesty. And he proposes as a goal not a colorless society, but one that, having removed the racial pecking order, celebrates a broad pallet of color.

While some may find Pollyanna lurking in Dalton's text, his is a thoughtful exploration of the bedeviling business of understanding, told with humor and humanity. In an interview from his New Haven, Conn., home, he talked about the terminology of race, the positive effects of the Simpson trial and the potential of a political message that seeks to unite, rather than divide, the peoples of our nation.

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Question: One of the major themes of your book is that white Americans, in general, don't think about being a member of a racial group, the way blacks and other people of color do. How is this a key cause of the racial divide?

Answer: It can be very galling to black people to encounter white people who don't think of themselves as having a race, because for us, it's such a daily reality. So blacks react negatively when whites say things like, "I don't think of myself as white." And when whites encounter blacks who are quite aware of being black, it is all too easy to think blacks are hypersensitive about race. So the difference in perception often results in a lot of miscommunication.

There is also a connection between that sense of racelessness, which many whites have, and a sense that one is entitled to what one has in this life. Most whites will freely acknowledge that blacks have suffered as a result of slavery, segregation, poverty and the rest. But most don't recognize that whites have benefited from that phenomenon. So to the extent that most whites don't think of themselves as members of a race, it's easy for them to disassociate themselves from the privileges that go with having white skin.

Q: Part of the lack of dialogue seems to stem from the continuing confusion about what racial terminology to use. Are white people Caucasians? Are they Anglos? Should I refer to you as black, or African American?

A: If we trust each other, none of this matters. The problem is, most of us don't trust each other across the racial divide, and, therefore, if a white person says, "I don't think of myself as white, or Caucasian, or Anglo, I think of myself as Irish American," or whatever, what we as blacks hear is someone running away from race. Similarly, if a black person insists on being called African American, what whites hear is, "Uh-oh, these people change names every few years, and now they're going to think I'm a racist because I don't have the right terminology." And so the confusion about terms is just one more example of why it's important to put aside all our fears about what people are going to think about what we are going to say, and just say it.

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