Can't End Racism by Ignoring It

Article excerpt

The hate-filled words of former detective Mark Fuhrman shocked Americans when they were heard at the O.J. Simpson trial two weeks ago. But they should do more than shock us. They should make us look into ourselves and face the tenacious reality of racism in our country.

The problem is not just Fuhrman or the Los Angeles police or those other police forces that still manifest bigotry. It is the vast range of obstacles that black Americans must overcome to get an equal chance in life.

The infant death rate is twice as high for black infants as for white infants in this country. From birth, large numbers of blacks face the daunting odds of poor families, poor schools, joblessness, victimization by criminals, desolate surroundings.

But it is not only the underclass that suffers. Middle-class blacks feel the sting of a more subtle, even unknowing racism.

In too many of us there is often a buried assumption that blacks are likely to be less able, less accomplished. Acquaintance overcomes the presumption. But the burden is placed on blacks to prove that they are equal to whites.

Overt discrimination has been greatly reduced in this country. The Supreme Court, the civil rights movement and Congress ended official segregation and the exclusion of blacks from the political process in the South. The venom of a Fuhrman is embarrassing to nearly everyone.

But black Americans still face the possibility of prejudice or condescension every day of their lives. The psychic strain can only be imagined by the rest of us.

How strange, then, is the dominant message we get from television, movies and advertising these days on the subject of race. In defiance of reality, we are told that race relations are getting better and better in the United States.

That feel-good message is described and dissected in the current Harper's magazine by Benjamin DeMott. He shows how a long list of contemporary films, from "Pulp Fiction" to "Forrest Gump," portray noble relationships between blacks and whites. Advertising, he says, routinely shows "black and white models at cordial ease with one another. …