Late one afternoon last summer, we sat for several hours in your car in front of my house talking about several recent racially-based attacks by whites upon blacks in Maine towns. These attacks, unexpected and out of character for the state, set you to reading and thinking about what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Dilemma: the inability of the United States to live up to its stated creeds and goals, a failure that has resulted in a neverending conflict.
You had been reading several disturbing books — The Fire Next Time, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Chain Reaction, Two Nations, The Promised Land — and while much of this bad news wasn’t really news to you, having grown up in Chicago, you seemed surprised and mystified, even dismayed, by the depth of alienation you were discovering in black Americans. In particular, you found strange the claim of one writer, Andrew Hacker, that blacks never, ever, feel at home in the land of their birth. You said this couldn’t possibly be true and asked me if I thought it was.
Jack, I am an Illinoisan of African descent by way of Mississippi; you are an Illinoisan too, Irish and Catholic. We’re both from the suburbs of Chicago, we both went to Notre Dame, and we both went on to obtain advanced degrees. We both come from ambitious families who didn’t settle for what their respective societies had planned for them, your grandfather blazing the trail out of Irish slums of Chicago for your family, my father, from the cotton fields of Mississippi, for mine. We have much in common and are, at times, frighteningly alike. But then there is this thing that permeates the world around us, that drives so much of what we discuss and how we see the world: I am black, and you are white.
Sometimes I wonder how we can keep this from coming between us. In our workaday friendship it isn’t much of an issue, but the fact that we so often end up discussing it is indicative, to me, that racial matters are a bigger issue in our lives — in our nation’s life if not our own — than we might wish to admit. Racism is, in fact, the American issue, on which the country will succeed or fail, because so much else is linked to it. But the country seems to move further and further from any true understanding.
I want to tell you a story. I was in Miami recently, working as a consultant for a large foundation there, the only black person in my particular group of seven or eight people. Let me be clear: The people I was working with were consummately professional in our dealings, and more than kind; I was enjoying my stay immensely, and my employers had even arranged for me to have a penthouse suite at a swanky hotel on Biscayne Bay. We conducted our business meetings in the same hotel, and this is where, on my fourth morning there, something happened that I will probably never get over. It may illustrate, a little, some of the alienation I’m talking about.
Each morning at 9 we met in a conference room, outside of which there was a buffet with toast, Danish, muffins, orange juice and coffee. On the morning in question, having already arrived in the meeting room, I stepped back out into the foyer for one last cup of coffee before convening the meeting. While I was pouring my cream and sugar, a security guard (black) came upon me and said menacingly, “Are you a guest at this hotel?” My instinct was to resist. After all, I was a paying guest, I was clothed in business attire (which made it quite irksome to watch whites in torn T-shirts and flip-flops stroll in and out unmolested) and I had been walking around in plain sight of the hotel staff for several days. Why this intimidation, now?
I said to the guard, with what I hoped was equal menace, “Why are you asking me?”
He said, “It’s my job.”
I said again, “Why are you asking me? What am I doing that would make you think I am not a guest?” We had reached a standoff and the guard went for his walkie-talkie. I looked back at the door to my conference room and figured at any second one of my colleagues would come out to look for me. I pulled the penthouse key from my pocket and cursed the guard as he walked off.
I tell you this, Jack, because I want to point out some of the nuances that are indicative of how we live, racially speaking, today, and how damaging they are. My altercation with the guard, whom I understand is basically trying to feed his family, is the least of the troubling issues. What’s really disturbing me in retrospect is how that incident colored the rest of my interactions with the whites I was working with. They had absolutely nothing to do with what had just happened, but I wonder if they noticed how distant I had suddenly become when I walked back into the room. Jack, I was so angry I couldn’t see straight for several hours. I didn’t want to take it out on these people, but I couldn’t help it. They became implicated in the mess. Perhaps that’s my failing, but I learned from that incident how shadows are cast upon the most innocuous of exchanges.
On the plane going home, I was even more dismayed to realize that the guard was, in fact, doing his job, a job defined from high within that particular corporation. I had been in Miami, where fear of crime against tourists is endemic, and the most efficient way of maintaining control is to roust all suspicious characters (though I was pained to think of myself as suspicious). I began to think, darkly, that the treatment I received was what the majority wanted and endorsed. I acutely understood the old joke: What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? N---er.
I’m asking you to imagine it, Jack — having to be apprehensive every time you’re in a new place. The reason blacks always and forever feel different is because the determination of that difference by others is always hanging in the air. It may be malicious, waiting for a hostile opponent to call you “n---er”; it may be innocent, even well-meaning “jokes” meant to make everyone “comfortable”; or it may be the going-out-of-the-way to welcome blacks in social or business situations. The effect is largely the same. The black person is reminded of his otherness, his difference, his stigma, and it’s exhausting, an invention of whites to preserve advantages. Whites have a power, Jack, real and practiced, and they know it; a power to attempt to insult, to humiliate and stigmatize a black at any moment. It is the only social power some whites have, their own lives being otherwise full of degradation and humiliation.
The simplest disagreement between a black and a white can ignite, at any moment, into a racially tinged conflagration fraught with danger for all concerned. What wears you down, Jack, is this unending peril coupled with the gratuitous and petty assaults on your person and character. This is what causes many African-Americans to turn inward and regard themselves as a group apart. It also causes them to give up on the possibility of real community. I think most black children leave their parents’ home for school full of hope and fellow feeling, and then are worn down, some quicker than others, by what they experience in the world. This applies as much to Evanston as to Cabrini Green.
Many blacks just give up on the wider society. This is, I think, one of the key psychological factors inhibiting black progress out of the ghettos and rural backwaters, but it can also work on the most credentialed and assimilated blacks. If I perceive, in a silly example, that a waiter is ignoring me or in some other way disdaining me, do I assume that he’s busy or that he’s racist? You’ll say, Jack, that I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but how do I overlook all the previous slights and humiliations? Why should I give him the benefit of the doubt? Why do I have to act in a saintly way that is not required of him?
You begin to see the prison we Americans are in because of racism: The waiter can’t have a bad day, at least not with me, because of all the bad days I’ve had at the hands of whites in the past.
I’ll tell you another story. When I was a kid, my parents would rent a cabin on Lake Michigan in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, near the town of Escanaba. Each vacation generally passed pleasantly. But as I’ve gotten older, something that happened there has taken on a symbolic meaning for me. That summer I was about 10, and there were several families staying in cabins down the road from us who were from the same Chicago suburb of Villa Park. I didn’t know what Villa Park meant then — working-class Slavs, Italians, Irish from the city escaping urban decline, i.e., blacks — but these people would have a bonfire every night and roast hot dogs and marshmallows and sing camp songs and enjoy the beach. One night they invited my brother and sister and me, and we went to the bonfire and sat for about 45 minutes, then decided we were cold and wanted to go inside (I also seem to remember some nightly Canadian radio show that we had discovered and didn’t want to miss). When we thanked the parents for having us and turned to leave, one of the kids blurted out, “See? You make us invite them, and they don’t want to come anyway.”
Through the years, this incident has played over and over in my mind, and it is illustrative of what I think the problem is. I don’t really know what was driving that little boy’s frustration with us — perhaps he just wanted us to stay and become friends — but as a grown man I know what “them” means. It means me. It means my family, my relatives, black people, people with dark skin. And the fact of that dark skin, in opposition to those with other skin, trumps all other aspects of my personality, my self.
My version of that evening in Escanaba now goes something like this: We were the only black family in the vicinity, and in a well-meaning gesture, the other families didn’t want it to seem as though they were ignoring us. We accepted their politeness out of reciprocal politeness, but then our good manners, because of the racial shadow, were seen as a rejection, while their courtesy was seen as patronizing. This is what the shadow of racism does to everything in American life, Jack; it charges everything with a meaning that may or may not be accurate and poisons the most banal of social exchanges. It leads to the current national situation where blacks are discussed only, exist only, in terms of the problems they present for whites.
This estrangement, in both the public and private spheres, is what scares me the most. I suppose the fact that you and I are aware of these issues it itself reason for hope, but it seems to me in the last several years Americans are increasingly unwilling to listen, to hear each other, while contemplating these issues. It’s as if it is too much effort to see one another clearly, to talk to each other with precision. We lack a vocabulary. The words we use have been bandied about so much that they are drained of common meaning. They have one meaning for the speaker and a quite different, often contradictory, code for the listener.
A black says, “Affirmative action.” A white says, “Reverse discrimination.” Someone else says, “Quotas.”
Or a black says, “Slavery!” A white says, “I wasn’t born then.” Someone else says, “Ancient history.”
This lack of a common language forces ethnic groups to compete, as it were, on an exchange of grievances in which each individual claim cancels all others. These denials preclude any agreement on a common history from which a relevant discussion can be based, and in the clamor, truth is lost.
So blacks worry that what they view as their historic claim on restitution and justice will be lost if they acknowledge any grievances of whites, while whites feel that they have done their part — or, increasingly, that they had nothing to do with the things that blacks are complaining about in the first place. It’s over. Who cares anymore?
This denial of history’s legacy is disturbing. I understand that whites are very tired of all this; that is the blindness of privilege, in this case racial privilege. One could say whites don’t care, but I think it’s more accurate to say they don’t care enough. Racism and its aftereffects don’t affect whites existentially, only as an external inconvenience and annoyances — crime, taxes, calls to conscience — not life-altering complication. When the annoyances get too clamorous, they respond with force: Hire more cops, cut welfare, build prisons. But they seem simultaneously to expect some kind of mercy — a magical absolution — to swoop down and end all this. It is, tragically, a mercy that whites as a group have never been willing to grant.
Again we pay the price of historical ignorance. Americans do not have any sense of how much racism has cost the country, morally, spiritually and economically, and so they misunderstand what it will take to ameliorate it. We can’t even speak of healing, because the country has never been whole. Is it possible for us, all of us, given the foregoing, to forge a new vision of this country and each other?
Perhaps the problem is that it is in the interest of some to remember and in the interest of others to forget. The immense suffering and dislocations of Africans on this continent are not a myth; to cite and recount them is not to make excuses. Jack, this refusal to confront history is another reason why blacks feel alienated, because we have our own versions of things, our own memories, which seem to be constantly disputed, ignored and disparaged.
We have our own cultural windows through which we view the world. Our experience has forced us to. You and I, because you are white and I am black, can observe the same event, analyze the same pattern of facts, and draw very different conclusions. Consider the recent New York City shooting of a black undercover policeman by a white patrolman who mistook him for a criminal. Was it a tragic mistake or racist haste? Our social realities force us to be aware of different nuances, perhaps even force us to frame different contexts.
It’s interesting to look at the experiences of your tribe, American-Irish Catholics, in comparison with those of American blacks. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer have described life in 19th-century American slums like this: “Drunkenness, crime, corruption, discrimination, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency were the routine of that era.” In the hundred years since then, Irish Catholics have become the single most successful ethnic group in the country while significant numbers of blacks fall further and further behind. Why is that, Jack? Simple industry on the part of the Irish? Black incompetence? Or is it because, whatever else blacks do — become spiritual WASPs or street criminals — they cannot become white?
When your ancestors arrived in Boston, New York, Chicago, they had a very hard time but they did get a chance. So did the Germans, Italians, Slavs, Scandinavians and others who came to America. There were blacks in Boston, New York and Chicago then too, and there are many more now, but millions of them have still not gotten a chance at the full possibilities of American life, partially because groups like Irish Catholics have seen them as a threat and suppressed them ruthlessly.
I think of an article I read last year in which an Irish woman in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood of Chicago — a consciously segregated all-white Irish enclave — told a reporter who asked for comment on the unabashed disdain of blacks the reporter was discovering there: “You don’t have to keep bringing up that they were slaves.” That struck me. Why? Were blacks not slaves? Is it not relevant anymore? Does she not want to think of it? While I was contemplating this woman’s desire to deny blacks their history, it also occurred to me that there is no group on this planet that clings more vociferously to the past, to a sense of cosmic injustice and tragic destiny, even while living in places like Lexington, Bronxville and Kenilworth, than Irish Catholics. So why must black history be denied?
Something I’ve learned from our talks, Jack, is that whites have their own myths and ways of seeing themselves, their own narratives of suffering and success, which often do not leave much room for other, competing, concerns. The suffering in the old country and the ideal of boot-strapping one’s way out of the American ghettos are what these stories celebrate, and the mythopoeticization of the stories leads to the “blacks-are-slackers” mindset that infects much of the country. “We did it, why can’t they?”
A kind of psychological double knot is applied, involving the invocation of white suffering and then, in turn-of-the-century immigrant groups, the cry of “but-we-weren’t-here-anyway.” This leads to an interesting point: Just as whites need to learn more about blacks, blacks need to understand better white legends and perceptions, and how they shape what happens in our society.
In The New Republic last summer, Fred Barnes wrote, “I’m waiting for a politician to say that white racism is one part of the problem, but there’s another part, an internal problem in the black community — crime, gangs, illegitimacy, welfare dependency — that blacks must confront aggressively.” This statement, besides being obvious, is true; but were I able to speak with Mr. Barnes on this subject, I would have a question for him: Where do “white racism” and “internal black problems” intersect? Might they be connected? To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, can immoral behavior by blacks be separated from immoral society? Are whites not privileged in our society, and doesn’t that privilege work in ways damaging to others? Jack, some will say that I’m making excuses, but I would say I’m merely describing. It’s amusing to me that there is such a fervor over multiculturalism and Afro-centrism and the like these days, because whites — after years and years and years of sending signals, overt and implicit, that blacks are not welcome in American society — seem surprised that some blacks would want to separate themselves from it. Historically, in every possible legal, cultural and social way they could, whites have obstructed, undermined and oppressed blacks. Whites lock us out, Jack, then chastise us for not coming in. They deign to bring us in, then they complain that we don’t know how to act, or are ungrateful. They castigate us for not meeting standards they themselves have never met, and they ignore the fact that the problems facing blacks are the same problems their forebears faced, but without the handicaps imposed on us. And whites couldn’t have transcended without the very government they vilify and accuse of throwing money away on blacks. Didn’t the GI Bill, VA mortgages, college loans, Social Security, the Interstate Highway program, military spending et al greatly help whites rise?
When have whites, even grudgingly, accepted blacks as a group? Why have they designed and acceded to a system that can have only one outcome, then act astonished when that outcome occurs? That brings u to the saddest part of all. I think that large numbers of blacks are giving up, turning their backs on any kind of transformative future, settling instead for a kind of internal exile, a permanent state of alienation.
Much of the way the black and white people of the United State have interacted in the last 50 years has been predicated on the forbearance of the blacks — being more Christian, more forgiving, more patient, in good hope — than whites. I don’t think large numbers of blacks are concerned with being “better” anymore, Jack, particularly the youth. They’re just angry. There comes a time when calm waiting begins to look like begging.
So we retreat. And attack. The time of innocence is past. We lost a tremendous opportunity in this country after the Civil War, and much of our current racial quagmire can be traced to that failure. Americans, black and white, fumbled another chance in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., and now whites are beginning to shake loose of any feeling or notion of responsibility, or involvement even, in what has happened.
This is to be expected. Being white in America carries its own burdens, and it would take a poet or a saint to see and embrace how blacks and whites are stuck to each other down through history. I suspect that whites want to be free of this, of us, blacks, and in the current climate that means putting us out of mind. Blacks demand to be remembered and seem to be destined to assume various mythological roles in the national theater, Teirisias, Siren, Minotaur. I think of De Tocqueville: If we cannot be equals, we are doomed to be enemies.
I’ve painted a bleak picture, Jack, and I hope I’m not saying more, as the Quakers put it, than that which is true. I think I’m speaking the truth, as I see it, because I’m speaking to you, whom I treasure and have nothing to gain from exaggeration. I don’t think that our relationship, or any of the millions like it in the country, invalidates anything that I’ve said. Instead, our friendship only points to the tragic irony of the American dilemma.
I have to struggle always to remember that a significant number of whites have been very, very good to me; a number of others haven’t been so good, but the same could be said of blacks in my life. I have begun to think that the best advice is to not view humans as anything other than individuals who have the capacity, either way, to continually surprise you.
When we walk out of our private lives, however, we are in a world that is trapped in a false way of seeing people; we are, literally, doomed to our groups, our tribes, and these groups have a way of ending up in conflict. The problem, my friend, is that every single person has to find some way of living through the smoky illusions of race and group, these untruths and lies that fester and pass from generation to generation until they make us actors in a script we didn’t write, don’t believe, and have no desire to see. Thurgood Marshall said, “We can run from each other, but we cannot escape each other.”
If we cannot find some way to live together peacefully, the alternative can be seen around the world — in Africa, in India, in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in Yugoslavia — in short, to commence drawing lines. And when that happens, my buddy, no matter how much we love Notre Dame, jazz, Irish poets, football or each other, you are going to be over there and I am going to be over here. And what then?
Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey, among other books, and has contributed to this magazine for 25 years.