RACIALLY, our country is not America the Beautiful of legend and lore. Camille O. Cosby recently reminded us yet again of this fact in a poignant article July 8 in USA Today, where she charged that "America taught my son's killer to hate blacks." She was referring to Mikail Markhasev, the Ukraine-born young man convicted in the shooting death of Ennis Cosby on a California highway last year.
The article provoked responses as emotional as her accusation and represented a contribution to the dialogue on race called for by the president. It triggered flash-card images in my mind that recall a lifetime of dealing with race and racism, by me and most other African Americans; memories of the painful and the proud, the ridiculous and humorous; experiences so incomprehensible to whites that they take them lightly or scoff at them, if they acknowledge them at all.
(Parenthetically, whites who urge African Americans to "get over it" find no parallel in the reignited fears of veterans who watch the vivid combat scenes in the movie, "Saving Private Ryan." Nobody is telling those old-timers to "get over it" when recalling horrors of the Normandy invasion creates strong, painful reactions.)
Nonwhites in America are looked upon by a majority of whites as different for one simple reason: We are different, with color being the determining factor. Racism seems to hit blacks hardest because of our peculiar history here and our turbulent interaction with whites throughout that history. Therefore, we are regarded differently and are so treated, and our responses to one another as we attempt to find solutions are superficial and ineffective.
The first and most important benefit of Ms. Cosby's article is that it keeps dialogue on race on the agenda. For a while, at least. We Americans are so shortsighted, and we just don't like talking about race. The topic is specific and substantive. Affirmative action and quotas are side issues that only distract us from the deeper, real cause of America's racism. I think some people use these side issues to prevent progress. When I say that, though, I am accused of being paranoid.
Ms. Cosby's charges and her persistence remind me of another position that I've come to in recent times: The real dialogue on race has to be held in the white community, between white leaders and their followers. They are the ones who have historically stymied integration and desegregation; they barred us from neighborhoods and housing, from top jobs, from churches; they have staunchly opposed every attempt at redress, every proposal to substantively tear down barriers.
The real answers to racism lie in the white community. President Clinton should set up forums; he should invite some Republicans, including Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms and (why not?) Ellen Sauerbrey. (Can you believe that Senator Lott claims he did not see racial problems while growing up in Mississippi? He must have held his nose much too high when he was drum major of the Ole Miss marching band.)
Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans can sit in as consultants, for a change. But white Americans must debate what kind of country and democracy they want and how best to achieve it with other groups. High on the list would be how to share the wealth. Right now, they hog it and protect it and perpetuate it, icing out the rest of us.
The talks would be difficult. While agreeing that a little residual racism may exist in America, far too many whites are in denial (Senator Lott, for example) about its extent and impact. An honest debate would be wrenching. The consultants could leave the room to permit frank discussion. Let me suggest a couple debating points to begin: Why are there no black Warren Buffetts? Is it a coincidence that there has never been a black Rockefeller or Morgan or Gates? What's really keeping all those blacks in wretched living conditions and in jobs at the bottom of the economy?
To me, those are some of the deeper meanings to the issue brought up by Camille Cosby. Immigrants who came to America might have been accompanied by foreign-hewn racism, but once here, they found great opportunity to advance it and solidify it. Then, irony of ironies: once a few of us broke the barriers and landed professional jobs, it was held against us; we were labeled affirmative action babies and criticized for not rescuing poorer blacks left behind in the ghetto. Answering those insidious charges wastes so much time.
That is our fate, the backdrop to the racism, that blacks and nonwhite Americans live with daily. When my family moved to Cleveland in the early 1950s, our street was predominantly Polish. They ran fast, prodded by real estate agents, as more blacks immigrated north. They fled to suburbs that barred blacks and proceeded to succeed gloriously in their new country.
That is the America that has so riled Camille Cosby to believe that her son's killer learned to hate blacks in his adopted country. Race is the great divider. If the open belief in white superiority in America is passe, the practice is not. This is still essentially a white country. It could have been Bill Cosby tied behind a pickup and driven to his death in Jasper, Texas, or beaten senselessly by New York City cops. Could have been any of us.
It is not a matter of who personally did or did not own slaves. Most whites in the South were not slaveholders, but they believed fervently in the institution and in the inferiority of blacks and showed their support with their blood in the Civil War. We are left to contend with the after-effects of their actions and their beliefs.
That, I believe, is the essence of what Ms. Cosby was saying. And she was on target.
Pub Date: 8/02/98