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Black and White, Divided by Language


Blacks and whites read black newspaper columnists with different expectations, says Earl Caldwell, a black columnist at the New York Daily News until recently, when he had a falling-out with his editors.

In an interview with his former rival, the New York Times, Mr. Caldwell said white readers tend to look for solutions to what they see as minority problems, while black readers tend to look for someone to express their concerns, whether those concerns call for a solution or not.

"The white people," he said, "are looking for a solution: 'What is the solution to begging?' 'What is the solution to the drug problem?' Black people are looking for you to put something on the record: 'Say this exists.' 'Tell people this is happening.' "

If Mr. Caldwell is saying black people would rather complain than find a solution, it does not speak too well for black folks. I, for example, am black and like solutions very much. Diagnosis, to me, is worthless without a prescription.

Even so, I hear an irresistible ring of truth in Mr. Caldwell's comment. Black talk radio, for example, thrives in cities across the country on complaints voiced by complainers who do not always seem terribly concerned with solutions to their problems.

When I appeared in a recent hour-long discussion of welfare reform on a black talk-radio station in the District of Columbia, I was disappointed but not too surprised to find that neither the callers nor the host was nearly as concerned about possible solutions as they were about retelling horror stories of the problem. Nobody liked the current system, but nobody sounded very interested in solving it, either, beyond the most general and abstract offerings: "We've got to get ourselves together," or "It's time for a change," or "We need a new agenda."

Black complaints sell briskly in book stores, too. Among new hard-covers, there's "The Rage of a Privileged Class." by Ellis Cose, which chronicles the plight of middle-class blacks who are unhappy to find (Surprise! Surprise!) that racism still dogs them despite their economic success.

In paperback, there's "Volunteer Slavery," by Jill Nelson, a black aristocrat who complains endlessly and often hilariously about her white bosses, her black colleagues and her boyfriends. In fiction, there's "Waiting to Exhale," by Terry McMillan, a runaway best-seller about a group of black women and their complaints about black men.

Earl Caldwell's sentiments closely resemble the conclusions linguistics professor Deborah Tannen has reached about men and women and their different communications styles that often lead to conflicts.

In her two best-sellers, "You Just Don't Understand," and "That's Not What I Meant!," she describes how men often respond impatiently to women's complaints with problem-solving responses like "So, what would you like?" or, "Tell me what you want" or "Why don't you try , . ." -- when the woman is not looking for a solution as much as she is seeking sympathy, empathy and understanding. Mixed signals can leave both parties feeling frustrated that the other just doesn't get it.

Chicago consultant Tom Kochman, author of "Black and White Styles in Conflict," finds similar understanding gaps along racial lines. "Whites view racism as a sin of commission, blacks as a sin of omission," he says. "Whites feel good about themselves ,, for avoiding committing any overtly racist acts. Blacks feel bad about what whites have failed or refuse to do to fight racism."

Generalizations are treacherous, especially along lines of race and gender. Too many exceptions break the rules. Countless blacks and women prove themselves to be dedicated and excellent problem solvers every day in American business, while countless white talk-radio programs thrive on complaint. Rush Limbaugh wallows in it.

But Ms. Tannen's books have become best-sellers because they ring true in the intergender experiences of many people. Until a better explanation comes along for the perplexing conflicts men and women often have with each other, she makes a lot of sense. So does Mr. Kochman.

If there is a culture of complaint distinct from the culture of problem solvers, it probably is less a function of race, gender or class than of power. Those who have power tend to be problem solvers or they don't keep their power very long. Those who do not have power are more likely to feel frustrated when their concerns are not heard, let alone acted on, by those who do have power.

The disempowered are more likely to seek the satisfaction of knowing that someone cares. Bill Clinton's campaign mantra, "I share your pain," has become a standing joke. But to legions of neglected voters who thought Washington had grown out of touch, it worked.

The dilemma for corporate managers and other leaders is obvious. Problem solvers have little patience with chronic complainers. Problem solvers want a quick fix. Yet many complaints defy simple solutions. Instead, they offer the tip of an iceberg of deeper problems that can only be solved through a process that begins with a simple dialogue. Unfortunately, dialogue often breaks down long before problem solving can begin.

What's the solution?

Not so fast.

First, let's talk about the problem.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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