Adozen years ago, in the final chapter of my book, Confessions of a White Racist, I wrote:
"These final lines are written from an ocean-front cottage in Maryland, just a mile or so below the Mason-Dixon line. The weather is hot and gasping, no matter that the calendar attests to late September 1970. Hundreds of people enjoy the sun, sea and surf. They come from Washington and Baltimore, from Delaware and from Maryland's Eastern Shore, from enclaves in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. For a week my wife and I have toured the several miles of beach, seeing no blacks other than those waiting on tables, making our beds or hauling away our trash. No one apparently finds this remarkable.
"A few miles from here, in towns named Easton, Salisbury, Denton and Dover, racial violence has become a common summer occurrence. This month the newspapers tell of recent shootouts between policemen and black militants in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago. Washington, approximately two hours away by car, has known three consecutive nights of street battles, looting and torchings. I see no concern on white faces turned upward to darken in the sun. I hear no alarm expressed on the beaches, in the restaurants or cocktail lounges or amusement parks. One is astonished at how quickly the human animal adjusts to catastrophe and chaos as part of the norm. Five years ago we sat in front of our television sets, alternately perplexed and frightened and angry, wondering what those crazy bastards in Watts were trying to prove. Now we listen with only one ear to reports of the latest battles in a war that is our open national secret.
"Our newspapers and television commentators play these battles down more than formerly. Racial insurrections are by this time old hat. [We] may stick our heads in the sand; it will not, however, change the fact that America in the 1970s is in the midst of a domestic race war. Armed confrontations between militant blacks and police have steadily increased, each side becoming progressively more self-righteous in its indignation, more harsh in its rhetoric, more deadly behind the gun. Little in the national air or the national experience foretells a lessening of racial tensions. In the absence of corrective influences, human events -- like stones rolling downhill -- tend to progress at increasing speeds in the direction in which they are headed. Witness, as example, Vietnam. Logic dictates that a racial Armageddon awaits the American future."
Well, we haven't exploded yet, and I, for one, am surprised. Oh, there have been random snipings and killings and one good-sized riot -- in Miami, in 1980 -- but our national Dodge City is tame, indeed, compared with a dozen years ago.
Not that blacks and whites have formed a circle to hold hands during a pleasant sing-along full of brotherhood and grace, but -- on the surface at least -- things have simply gone better racially in the nation than history gave us any reason to suspect.
If the two races do not yet truly intermingle socially in their homes, there is more of it than one found a dozen years ago or a decade ago. A dozen years ago I took two foxy black ladies into the then all-white Democratic Club on Capitol Hill -- they were the wives of friends, and we did it as a lark to see what reaction we'd get -- and people dropped their drinks and went goggle-eyed and whispered for days. That wouldn't happen anymore. On the job, by and large, tensions are fewer, and there seems to be less self-conscious walking on eggshells. Within the past five or six years whites have fled the inner cities at a slower pace; some few have actually come back from their lily-white suburban enclaves -- and some suburbs aren't so exclusively white anymore.
Yet let us not congratulate ourselves prematurely. Even where gains have been made there are soft spots. Employed blacks -- especially males -- continue to lag behind whites in earning power and promotions. Black women have benefited more than black men, because they are "twofers" -- both black and women -- and, consequently, in a period awakening to women's rights, have fared better at the promotion table. One black woman friend wryly says, "A few years ago they froze us at the Grade 7-to-9 level. Now they lock us in as 12s and 14s."
Among the unemployed, black teen-agers continue to lead the jobless list, at about 50 percent, and adult black males are currently without work at the 18 percent level.
The racial integration of public schools -- except, ironically, in the American South -- has suffered setbacks as busing has fallen into disfavor and many whites who can afford it (and a number of middle-class, upwardly mobile blacks as well) send their children to private schools. Many big-city public schools are integrated only in theory, showing imbalances of up to 90 percent black enrollment. Three of the last four national administrations -- Nixon, Ford and Reagan -- have proved singularly unenthusiastic about enforcing the law to ensure truly intergrated schools. To be fair to the politicians, it must be admitted the majority of the public is not clamoring for that law to be enforced. This "benign neglect" may return to haunt us in future years.
The money, the media and the reins of government remain overwhelmingly in the hands of whites. Though more than 1,200 blacks now hold elective office in the American South -- 20 years ago blacks died to register and vote -- only two, Mickey Leland of Texas and Horold Ford of Tennessee serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. (There has been one other since Reconstruction: Andy Young of Georgia.) Black mayors now serve in Atlanta, Richmond, Birmingham and New Orleans. Though blacks in the Old Confederacy now are nearly 20 percent of the population, they hold only 7 percent of all seats in state legislatures. No state in our union, regardless of region, has a black governor or U.S. senator.
Consider for a moment how blacks are depicted in the mass media. The televising of Alex Haley's Roots several years ago, watched by 130 million Americans, for the first time humanized black history for many whites and, momentarily at least, elicited sympathy for the long, hard battles blacks have waged for survival and justice. I know white people who were moved and touched and cried. To some extent, the same was true of the show The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. These, however, are the rare and good exceptions. Whites receive their majority media impressions of blacks from local TV news programs that often stress the criminal and the violent.
Blacks own only 11 of 783 commercial television stations in the United States. Blacks account for 9 percent of employes in television, but are vastly underrepresented in the top four employment categories: officials and managers, professionals, technicians and sales workers. Of 600 network vice presidents, eight are black.
As to movies, there was no black person in this summer's box-office sensation, E.T. The disembodied voice of James Earl Jones was the only black presence in the popular Star Wars. I was embarassed that in my own The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, Hollywood was guilty of the worst kind of tokenism if not out-and-out racism: the single black Texas Aggie on the movie football squad -- never mind that today's reallife Texas A&M squad is about 30 percent black -- was neatly paired off with the only black whore working at the Chicken Ranch. Indeed, of 240 movies released by major studios last year, a black actress appeared in only one leading role, and not more than a dozen black actors had major parts.
How about the print media? Blacks account for only 5.5 percent of all persons working for daily newspapers, and fewer new black reporters entered the business last year than in the past five years. Only 2.5 percent of news executives are black. Less than 5 percent of the staffs of national magazines are black, and only a halfdozen black editors work in 300 trade publishing houses.
Enough of statistics. How do we feel in our guts and hearts about members of the other race?
Personally, I do not feel as deeply about racial equality and justice as I once did. I do not think about it much, write about it much, talk about it much, or attempt to act on it much as formerly. Perhaps some of that may be attributed to growing older and more prosperous and to a natural banking of internal fires. Perhaps the conservation of energies and time and new interests plays a part. Perhaps the gains one has seen make "the problem" appear less critical than in the past. Perhaps, somewhere back there, I grew tired of angry black faces and angry black voices and mean-eyed street dudes and noisy chatter and loud music. Maybe I just got tired of rowing boatloads of white guilt from shore to shore only to find angry accusers lined up to load me down with more cargo. Maybe my car was stolen once too often by my black brothers -- three times, in the summer of 1973.
Maybe it was waking in my Southwest apartment to the screams of my lady-in-residence, to scuffle with a black burglar who had neatly stacked my television set, stereo and typewriter in anticipation of a cleaner getaway than he made.
Perhaps it was being set upon by a gang of black teenagers at a shopping mall in Southwest a few years ago, toughies who tried to take the clothes I'd just ransomed from a cleaning shop and who, when I resisted with curses, kicks and punches, pretty well whopped up on me and left me with deep deposits of rage and fear. Or maybe it was a combination of all that. Damn, it is a weird, upside-down world when George Wallace can be said to have mellowed enough to attract significant black votes, while I have fewer black friends -- and fewer black concerns -- than I had a decade ago.
Wallace Terry, a black man, a journalist and local TV commentator, leans back, has another sip of scotch, wrinkles his dark brow and says to an old, white friend, "I think my wife, Janice, puts it right. She says 'Sure, things are different. Things haven't truly changed. ' I mean, when you are black and dealing with white people you are aware of them and of the white world every minute. I taught at Howard University for a few years, dealing almost exclusively with blacks, and it was a relief not to have to think about race, not to have to walk around calculating the angles or trying to read minds."
Terry is by any measurement a member of the black elite -- honors graduate of Brown University, where he was editor of the campus newspaper and captain of the debating team; a former foreign correspondent for Time; once a writer for this newspaper -- and yet, at 44, a few of his fires have been banked, too. "A dozen years ago," he says, "I might have hit or wanted to cuss out or even to punch out some cracker for an insult. Now I'm more inclined to put it down, to ignore it and go my way. I mean, I'm not letting anybody walk over me, you understand. I've just got other concerns and no time to waste educating damn fools."
Wally addresses the results of the black revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s. "Black people became more aggressive, developed more pride and confidence in themselves. The 'Black is Beautiful' theme, the looking back to roots and ancestors and history in Africa, was overall a good thing. The problem is that too many young blacks accepted the rhetoric but didn't follow through to prepare themselves to get along in a white, capitalistic society. They saw middle-class blacks being yanked into the door if they had the right credentials, and the kids assumed the door would stay open to them without studying or making much effort on their own. They saw themselves as celebrities, people who had it made compared with the old days, and suddenly they refused to bus trays in a restaurant or start any job at the bottom. So what happened? Hispanics and Orientals came in and took those jobs. I'm not saying, now, that black teen-age unemployment is wholly because of that. But it's a factor."
Terry also laments that most blacks have not stuck together, have not had more of a "tribal instinct when it comes to commerce and politics. Because we came from different tribes, and slavery separated us to rob us of a common language, history, religion and identity, we've had trouble getting together. Now it's the Orientals buying the 7-Elevens and mom-'n'-pop stores in black communities. They're just the latest group to leapfrog over our black behinds. They pool their resources."
How about the racial Armageddon?
"Oh, it might happen," Wally says. "If we have a few more years of government indifference to black poverty and black hopes there could be new explosions. You know, white people ought to consider the pattern of recent years if they want a clue as to what might happen in the future. At Watts, you know, and in some other places back then, blacks burned their own neighborhoods. Next time they may burn whitey's.
"Now in Liberty City [in Miami] in 1980, for the first time since the slave uprisings before the American Civil War, blacks sought out whites to beat or kill -- to get even for the brutal killings of a black man by several Miami cops who were acquitted. These things do have a way of escalating once they get started." (A Ford Foundation study found another significant change: at Liberty City, the rioters were "from a more law-abiding and representative group" of blacks than formerly.)
Acts of violence on the part of whites in recent years include the classic white-cops-overreact-and-kill-black-prisoner in Miami (the culprit was being chased for speeding on a motorcycle); the.22-caliber killings in Buffalo of three black males (and one Hispanic) by a GI found "mentally unfit" to stand trial; the killing by sniper fire of two black joggers in Salt Lake City because they were "mixing" with white women. (Joseph Paul Franklin was convicted, though acquitted of the sniper wounding of the Urban League's Vernon Jordan, who also was in the company of a white woman.)
Perhaps it is not spectacular acts of violence that characterize the period, however, so much as more subtle and instinctive acts of racism. Janice Terry spoke with some outrage of her 15-year-old son, David, being picked up by police in their affluent Northwest neighborhood and quizzed as to what he was doing in the area. "Dammit," Mrs. Terry shouted to officers, "he lives here!" A neighbor, you see, had spotted young David Terry running through his back yard with a white friend and had assumed enough mischief to call the cops.
That led to a story of my own, though I am not proud to tell it. A couple of years ago when I lived on Capitol Hill, policemen canvassed the neighborhood to warn of a rash of burglaries and to ask residents to call should they see anything suspicious. A day or so later, at my typewriter in the back of the house, I saw a teen-age black crawl out of a garage by lifting up a loose board. I called the law. Soon the neighborhood was full of sirens and uniforms. The kid was caught. It turns out he lived in the house connected to the garage, and had loosened the board so he might have easy permanent entry and egress.
I am forced to admit I probably wouldn't have called the cops had that kid been white. Old poisons run deep and stay in the innards longer than we are aware.