BETHESDA. — Bethesda. -- I used to be dark-haired (now it's salt-and-pepper) and I'm still blue-eyed, with skin color half-way between Nordic and Mediterranean. Thus endowed, I learned long ago that people often have funny ideas about race and heredity.
One one occasion my physical appearance really upset a receptionist in an office. She stared open-mouthed and exclaimed: "He's blue-eyed!" She'd always assumed that blueness of eyes went with blondness of hair and fairness of skin, not to mention awesomeness of height. (I never made the team in basketball.)
Another time, after a woman with an East European accent had tried unsuccessfully to change a $10 bill at a subway booth, a stranger fell in beside me and started mouthing off about "those pushy kikes." I told him he was talking to the wrong guy. He had taken me for an Anglo-Saxon type who would share his prejudices.
I guess I'm some kind of half-breed. Prof. Leonard Jeffries Jr., if we were to meet, might also struggle a bit to classify me racially or ethnically.
For 19 years he has headed the African-American Studies
department at New York's city college (a CUNY campus). He has laboriously brought forth a provocative theory of racial superiority based on skin color. Dr. Jeffries believes he can, so to speak, separate the sheep from the goats among us bipeds by examing our melanin (pigmentation).
In the Jeffries version of the story of mankind, it is the dark-skinned who are destined to rule. They are the Sun People, whites are the Ice People. We children of the sun, he tells blacks, came first. "And we are the haves. We have had the beginning of the march of humankind. We are the mothers and fathers of civilization. We developed science, mathematics, philosophy."
Dr. Jeffries, so far as I know, has not been directly involved in the recent carnage in Brooklyn, nor have I. But his "skin thinking" is clearly dominant in the turmoil and bloodshed. It infects everyone alike -- sun people, ice people and half-breeds like me.
I borrow the "skin thinking" phrase from a caller participating in call-in program on the radio station lauded by the Rev. Al Sharpton as the "heartbeat" of New York's black community. Addressing her remarks to guest speaker Charles J. Hynes, Brooklyn's district attorney, the caller noted: "I'm a black woman, but . . . I don't think with my skin, you know."
Unfortunately, the typically quiet voice of sanity is barely audible amid the din created by numerous black supremacists who are darker clones of the white supremacists they pretend to oppose. Resurgent racism casts a hypnotic spell upon everyone, including half-breeds like me.
Thinking with my skin, I couldn't help noticing that one of the Sun People is accused of drunkenly driving the ill-fated Lexington Avenue subway train that killed five passengers, injured 200 others and virtually wrecked the 14th St. station. Nine days earlier, black residents of Brooklyn's Crown Heights couldn't help noticing that it was ne of the Ice People -- a Hasidic Jew in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's convoy -- who was driving the car that jumped a curb, killing one black child and injuring another.
The Sun People, in the persons of some 20 youths chanting "Kill the Jew," got back at the Ice People by stabbing a visiting Australian rabbinical student to death. I'm pleased to report that, to date, no mob of Ice People has randomly singled out any Sun Person to be done to death with chants of "Kill the black," in retaliation for the catastrophe wrought by the subway motorman.
In the meantime -- momentarily safe indoors -- I'm anxiously awaiting word from Dr. Jeffries about where half-breeds like me stand. It's difficult to be optimistic, though. His scientific theories seem ill-equipped to confront the racial realities of American history. Where would he place a giant figure like Frederick Douglass? The great abolitionist's mother was a slave, his father plantation owner, his first wife black, his second wife white. Why, that was miscegenation!
If logic is one of Dr. Jeffries' strengths, I'm afraid he would have to call for reinstatement of laws in our own country that not so long ago forbade intermarriage. By the same logic, he should be lining up with South Africa's rightists in condemnation of the recent repeal of that country's racial-classification act.
There are other puzzlements. Has Dr. Jeffries studied the faces of the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel? On the television screen and in newspaper photographs they appear to be blacker than Dr. Jeffries himself. What are they -- Sun People or Ice People?
A relatively unpigmented Jeffries colleague -- tenured in CUNY's philosophy department -- has sounded off on race from an opposite standpoint, holding, essentially, that blacks are dumber than whites. A court has ruled in Michael Levin's favor against the blundering college administration which had, among other things, set up separate sections of his courses for students offended by his racist theorizing in off-campus media. The judge ordered CUNY to cease its violations of Dr. Levin's rights to free speech and due process.
Now, free speech is as sacred to me as it is to any federal judge. I certainly wouldn't want to gag these two Bobbsey Twins (non-identical) of academia. They remind me of a comic definition of a legitimate Yiddish word and its offshoot. The word is "nudnick," which means, roughly, a boob. From it we get "phudnick," which means a nudnick with a Ph.D.
Neither Dr. Jeffries nor Dr. Levin should be gagged. But there is a difference between the two. Dr. Levin is small fry -- he doesn't propagate his racism as head of a department or in his classroom. Dr. Jeffries does both. Of course he should be fired -- he never should have been hired in the first place, because it is wrong for any college to institutionalize pseudoscience in its curriculum.
Stan Lichtenstein is an alumnus of the College of the City of New York.