RACE in America lies at the center of this country's "precious,
precarious experiment with democracy," says Dr. Cornel West, author
of "Race Matters" and a professor of Afro-American studies and the
philosophy of religion at Harvard University. In his view, how
Americans think and act about race is closely linked to the
democracy's survival. "In the end, we go up together or we go down
together," he says.
His remarks were part of a day-long seminar here March 10 that
touched on housing, education, arts, media, religion, and sports in
the context of "How Race Shapes Life in America."
The occasion was the 20th anniversary of Brooklyn's Starrett at
Spring Creek, a model project of integrated housing for 6,000
families where the white-black ratio is about 50-50. Robert
Rosenberg, director of Starrett Housing Corporation, decided that a
dialogue about race would be a more meaningful way to celebrate
than a party.
Recent polls show that most Americans now consider overt racism
unacceptable. Many people assume accordingly that racial
discrimination is down. That conclusion lies behind the current
push to end affirmative-action programs that extend racial and
gender preference in contracts, school admissions, and jobs as a
remedial measure for past discrimination. Yet a recent Newsweek
poll shows that well over two-thirds of both blacks and whites
consider race relations fair to poor.
One problem is the persistence of stereotypes in the media. TV
stories on welfare, poverty, and crime often feature blacks.
"There is no such thing as 'black crime,' " says playwright
Stanley Crouch. "Black criminals don't represent black people. They
represent criminals.... People in the press need to make that very
Clarence Page, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, says city news
organizations may send an unmarked truck out to film blacks for a
story on cocaine sales because the filming is easy. Yet he notes
that the majority of cocaine purchases involve whites. "White folks
do their drug dealing behind closed doors," he explains.
Too often, Mr. Page says, blacks do not get the credit they
deserve. While many people think most blacks are poor and largely
responsible for increases in out-of-wedlock teen births, the growth
rate of such births for black teens actually leveled off in 1970
while it has gone up 150 percent for white teens, he says. And
one-third of all blacks have incomes below the poverty line.
Civil rights laws and regulations over the last 30 years have
brought some gains in housing and school integration as well as in
more balanced textbooks and curricula, speakers said. Trumpeter and
composer Wynton Marsalis, for instance, recalled that his history
books had pictures of "Negroes" smiling on plantations and no
mention of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. …