The day after a National Conversation on Race hosted by the Aetna, I was in McDonald's having a McSomething and a cup of McCoffee. It was mid-morning and pretty quiet in there. I saw the manager, a black guy about 27, wiping tables. Being a writer and all-around Seeker of Truth, I set out to do a little informal polling.
"You have a minute?" I asked and pulled out a chair.
"Sure, what can I do for you?" he replied.
"Do you know anything about the National Conversation on Race?"
"Nah," he shrugged, "Um, kinda busy today, I gotta make some phone calls."
So ended my Personal Conversation on Race. It may have lacked the grand auditorium, television cameras and nationally-known panelists of the event I attended a day earlier -- but it accomplished about as much. At neither did I hear any hallelujahs of enlightenment borne of breaking free from previously-held perceptions.
At the Aetna, the panel participants spoke for the inclusion of women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Native-Americans and the disabled. Only Joe Sixpack was without a champion. As best as I can figure, the premise behind these Conversations is all we have to do is get a grip on group gripes and Eureka! We'll all understand where everyone else is coming from and we can solve our racial issues.
Now, I've watched CNN's "Crossfire" as many times as I could stand it and I've never seen any mutual understanding come of presenting opposing views. There's a reason we call some things divisive. Take abortion for example. There are only two sides: pro and con. The activists on this issue debate each other all the time and neither convinces the other it is infanticide or a private matter between a woman and her doctor.
The conversants at the Aetna didn't even agree on what the buzzwords meant. Senator Joe Lieberman said he was for affirmative action but against the use of quotas. Ward Connerly, the black author of California's Proposition 209, said he too was for affirmative action but opposed racial preferences. Aetna CEO Dick Huber seemed to express the belief that corporations who ignore diversity will miss opportunities for profit and as soon as they recognize this, affirmative action will take care of itself without any, well, affirmative action.
There is a forbidden term in the Conversations which is both necessary and useless. It is essential because it allows a person to express a mindset. It is superfluous because race relations comes down to the way each individual relates to his neighbor or co-worker. The term is "you people."
A wave of disquiet scissored through the auditorium when this taboo was threatened. Abigail Thernstrom, a white woman, said she thought "the biggest problem in the African-American community" is the inferior quality of education in the inner city. Her distaff counterpart Joyce Tucker, a black civil rights lawyer, said she gets "very uncomfortable whenever a white person says 'the biggest problem in the black community is...'" The African-Americans in the audience broke into applause. So much for candid conversation.
All the king's horses and men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again because they were eggheads too. The fatal flaw in these National Conversations may be they are conducted by politicians and representatives of special interests and think tanks who believe racism results from and can be cured by policy. We would be better served by getting the views of the folks who moved out of Hartford in search of whiter pastures or machinists who can speak of what unites and divides them along the line at Pratt & Whitney. You don't build a pyramid from the top down.
Black people want to know why they are pulled over by cops or followed by store security personnel for no apparent reason. Latinos want to learn why blacks and whites persist in trying to force the use of English on them. The white couple from the suburbs needs to understand the high teen pregnancy and accompanying child abuse rates among Puerto Ricans in Hartford or why they sell beepers at the check-cashing outlets on Park Street and Albany Avenue.
On one level of thought, some white people think racism went out with tail fins and poodle skirts. Yet in a poll which asked whites if they would trade places with a black person -- for a million dollars -- few said they would. Somewhere in the mindset of that refusal is an outline which can bring definition to America's bigoted shadow.
The polemics of affirmative action might make for an interesting debate, but the more severe racial tensions flow along the riprap of our societal interplay and in the basements of our individual psyches. Until we can address those sentiments without fear of recrimination, the National Conversation on Race will remain a Rohrshach Test for the ears in which participants hear what they want to hear.
January 20, 1990