Strange Fruit

Article excerpt

I have a friend who is the only black person living in his luxury cooperative building. A few years back, there was a get-to-know-your-neighbor party. After the party, as he was riding back upstairs on the elevator, a white woman who lived in the building told him that there was a new neighbor, a Mr. X, who was "incredibly racist." He told every hateful, supremacist joke in the book, she advised, and therefore "you should try to do something about him." What struck my friend, even more than the assignment to him of "doing something," was that he had seen her sitting with Mr. X for at least two hours during the party, nodding and listening but shocked, just shocked.

Two years later, Mr. X had worked his way up through the ranks of co-op board politics to become head of the committee interviewing prospective purchasers. It should be no surprise that by last September his candid attitudes toward minorities had earned the building a major discrimination suit. "Now it's everybody's problem," says my friend, shaking his head. "And everybody's shocked. Just shocked. They fall all over themselves apologizing to me--like I'm the plaintiff! But they're still fighting the case. They see no reason they should have to pay damages." If that weren't bad enough, my friend is finding himself used as the symbol of the co-op board's openness. "How could we be racist when we have a black person in the building?" the indignant Mr. X has asked, sounding for all the world like the Republican Party trying to resurrect itself as the born-again bastion of what it heretofore derided as the civil rights "establishment."

We have a troublesome tradition of apologizing a bit too quickly, a bit too easily, like sobered-up frat boys plying authorities with theatrical renditions of remorse. There's not a newspaper in the nation unadorned with elaborate expressions of contrition for one supreme mess or another. From Trent Lott to Cardinal Law, from Jerry Falwell to Michael Jackson--whether politicians, priests, athletes or financiers, they're sorry about slavery, sorry about running over Korean schoolchildren, sorry about raping minors, sorry about defrauding all those stockholders, sorry about accidentally bombing our Canadian allies, sorry about dangling that baby over the abyss. As Maureen Dowd said of Lott's sudden embrace of affirmative action (now that it's as dead as Martin Luther King), "For the love of Amos 'n' Andy, hasn't Mr. Lott punished the black man enough?"

Still, there are a few people from whom I'd like to hear an apologetic word or two: First, George W. Bush for the policies of his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. New provisions, slipped by the press while reporters were off googling Lott's past, will allow religious institutions like Bob Jones University to receive federal funding for charitable missionary work, even if their hiring practices violate various civil rights laws. Second, the long list of law professors, including many "liberals," who supported Michael McConnell's recent nomination to the federal bench, despite McConnell's published stance that segregationist policies at religious institutions like Bob Jones University should not disqualify them from federal funding. …