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Missing the Point: A Dissent

October 04, 1998|JULIUS LESTER | Julius Lester is the author of 28 books. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is a professor in the Judaic studies department and adjunct professor in the English and history departments. The 30th anniversary edition of his "To Be A Slave" has just been published

Since the winter of last year, no fewer than five books have been published by political conservatives (or "conservabals"--liberals who sound like conservatives) telling us that America's racial problems are not as bad as we think and certainly not as bad as many blacks maintain. Ellis Cose ("Color-Blind"), Jim Sleeper ("Liberal Racism"), Orlando Patterson ("The Ordeal of Integration"), Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom ("America in Black and White") and Tamar Jacoby ("Someone Else's House") want us to believe that America would be a colorblind society if blacks would stop bringing up race and racism all the time. Conservatives, black and white, want us to believe that blacks have never had it so good because racism is on the wane and that blacks who can't see this are morally irresponsible.

Given that conservatives have never been known for their support of civil rights, one is almost forced to admire the arrogance in their sanctimonious lectures about race. During the school desegregation and civil rights struggles of the '50s and '60s, conservatives did not walk through mobs holding the hands of black children integrating schools, nor were they singing "We Shall Overcome" with Martin Luther King Jr. They were too busy arguing for the doctrine of states' rights, while maintaining that integration had to come gradually and could not be imposed on the South by "outside agitators."

Yet, in all honesty, they are not entirely wrong. There are all too many blacks eager to call whites racist for imagined and trivial offenses. All too many blacks blame whites for their own failings and do not take as much responsibility for themselves as they could. But this is not news. Any number of black intellectuals, including this writer, have been saying the same thing for more than 20 years.

What is sad is that as we as a nation stand on the doorstep of a new century, we have still not learned how to talk to each other about race and, in fact, may be more racially polarized now than when the Civil War ended 133 years ago. Blacks wag fingers of recrimination at whites, and whites point fingers of chastisement at blacks and both mistake the rank odors of their self-righteousness for fine perfume. Blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives seem more intent on arranging information to intellectually confirm what they already believe, rather than listening and learning from each other. No one acknowledges that his own ideological rigidity may be part of the problem making impossible the extended conversation we as a nation so desperately need.

Since the advent of affirmative action, a linchpin of conservative ideology has been the notion of a colorblind society. Of course, conservatives conveniently overlook that blacks were asking to be judged on the basis of merit and individuality more than 200 years ago. Conservatives conveniently overlook that whites have benefited from affirmative action since colonial times (and racism is affirmative action for white people). Now that race is accorded in favor of blacks (as race has always been accorded in favor of whites), conservatives ring the bell of meritocracy and want blacks to believe that whites are capable of judging blacks on their individual merits. (I know that there are black conservatives who oppose affirmative action; as Vladimir Lenin said almost a century ago when told that there were black conservatives, "but what do they have to conserve?")

A colorblind society is not possible until whites no longer mistake color for an ethical value. I do not mean equating black with evil but white with good. How whites view blacks grows logically from how whites view themselves. As long as whites view whiteness as the apotheosis of physical beauty and moral perfection, they are doomed to see nonwhites, and especially blacks, as ugly carriers of congenital moral defects. If many blacks talk so much about racism, it is only because so many whites have talked about the superiority of their race for most of this nation's history. Conservatives continue this grand tradition because they never sound more racist than when they proclaim their colorblindness.

Their real blindness is evident, however, in how they distort, ignore and twist history to fit their ideological preconceptions. Tamar Jacoby is especially egregious in this. (I focus on Jacoby merely because her book is the most recent entry in the effort of conservatives to rewrite America's racial history in their image.) Her ideological biases are so strong that one cannot trust the accuracy of her information. Two examples of which I have direct knowledge:

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