Blacks and whites: the U.S. race dilemma

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race," by Benjamin DeMott. Atlantic Monthly Press. 214 pages. $20

This is an unsettling book for every white American who has taken comfort from the images of racial progress and amity with which pop culture surrounds us: the integrated affluence of Bill Cosby's Huxtable family; the gruff black-white buddy pairings of such movies as "Lethal Weapon" I, II and III, in which opposites Danny Glover and Mel Gibson attract; the cheery interracial camaraderie of Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel on NBC's "Today" show; the ubiquitous advertisements that portray a world of exquisite racial balance.

In his engaging and polemical essay, Benjamin DeMott paradoxically links these bracing images directly to today's bitter racial politics. Why on earth should affirmative action be necessary, after all, if blacks are already whites' equal? How can the history of slavery and segregation still be relevant when black prosperity is everywhere so evident?

The reigning cultural ethos, Mr. DeMott argues, interprets race relations as largely a matter of one-on-one friendship. "The Trouble With Friendship," he says, is that it casts aside history, denies the existence of racism and suggests that government catch-up programs are outmoded. All we need to do, the subtext of the culture claims, is be pals.

Mr. DeMott, a professor at Amherst College and author of 13 books, drew tellingly on popular culture to expose social myths in his 1990 book, "The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class." Pop culture is revealing because it reflects the myriad choices of Americans with money to spend. The hucksters of AT&T; and Coca-Cola would not promote images of black-white friendship if they didn't sell. And sell they do: Mr. DeMott is able easily to compile a list of 66 recent movies in which "black and white friendship ... was seen erasing the color line," from "Driving Miss Daisy" to "White Men Can't Jump."

It may seem merely cranky to complain that where once Hollywood portrayed African-Americans as bumbling inferiors it now shows blacks as competent, valuable friends. Mr. DeMott admits that "our national, self-congratulating epic of amity" represents a kind of progress. Yet while it may be "a step #F forward in the nation's moral life," he writes, "it is also emerging - because of delusions that it inspires - as a political and intellectual step backward."

Like any polemic, Mr. DeMott's book occasionally ignores the evidence on the other side. He slights Alex Kotlowitz's portrayal of the friendship he developed with the two poor black boys who are the subject of his book "There Are No Children Here." But he does not mention the book's devastating portrait of life in a black Chicago housing project. He analyzes at tedious length the upbeat stories in a New York Times education supplement, suggesting that the mainstream press is overflowing with tales of whites befriending blacks. Yet that is far from typical of major newspapers, which are often accused of reporting black crime and poverty to the point of obscuring the growing black middle class.

It would have been interesting to read Mr. DeMott's thoughts about why black poverty dominates the news while black prosperity pervades advertising. But if his book is single-minded, it is still a fresh and challenging contribution to the debate over America's racial dilemma.

Scott Shane, a Sun reporter, was Moscow correspondent fro 1988-1991. The paperback edtion of his book, "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union," is just out.

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