IN ITS FAMOUS 1968 report on race in America, the Kerner Commission, sounding a doomsday voice above the sirens of race riots and assassinations, forecast that the United States was becoming two countries -- one white and one black.
It was wrong. Today blacks and whites can be seen mixing at work, in the most expensive shopping malls, playing sports, running for office. Where the races separate is in the yawning gulf growing ever larger between black and white perceptions of politics and life.
Go ask whites what they think of Louis Farrakhan, the Muslim leader. Now go across town and ask blacks.
Go, ask whites what they think of Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Then go to black political meetings and ask the same question. While there, ask blacks about the booming economy that whites celebratek blacks if life in America is better for them today than it was 20 years ago; then go ask whites.
From the two tribes come answers so different it is now apparent that while they do live together, black and white Americans are divorced.
Whites, like Ronald Reagan, want to talk about how different 1985 is from 1965. They're right. Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby as the kings of comedy is different. Black mayors in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington is different. The sight of black faces among the policemen, judges, TV newsmen and in corporate America is different. A black running for president is different.
On that basis the president asks why black leaders don't celebrate the good progress of the last 20 years. And whites, generally, ask: why are blacks so alienated?
The answer: To be a black American in 1985 is to be trapped in a no man's land. The trap is to listen to whites happily tell you the battle against racism has been won, the world is colorblind, you can compete and make it on your own.
The reality, to black eyes, however, is to know that while life is better than 20 years ago, you still are treated, seen and identified on the basis of your color. And while black incomes are up in absolute terms, and blatant discrimination is down, to be black is to feel the power of U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing that in 1959 blacks were three times as likely as whites to be poor and in 1983, the last year for which comparable figures are available, they were still three times as likely as whites to be poor.
Whites take it as gospel, almost without exception, that blacks have a better life today than they did 20 years ago. Yet while black family income has risen along with that of other Americans, the median income of black families today is about $8,000 less than that of whites. That's the same gap, in constant dollars, that existed in 1966.
Similarly, in 1965 white male unemployment was 3.6 percent versus 7.4 percent for black men. Today it is 6.6 percent for white men and 13.7 for black men.
Life is better for blacks; their standard of living as a group has improved and educated blacks are approaching parity in income with whites. The black middle class has increased in both size and income. While 4.8 percent of the people in college were black in 1965, 10.2 percent were in 1984.
So, some say, isn't it really true that blacks who are not properly educated, who have children as teen-agers, who get involved in crime and drugs, are dragging down blacks as a group more than any white racist?
The answer is yes. But how is it possible to identify that underclass as anything but a group highly victimized by the racism that remains in the country? Certainly some of their problems are of their own making. Upright young people, who work hard in cold tenements, go to school and have a job afterward, might make it out. But that is not to say that their educationally deprived, culturally poor parents and grandparents, and their jobless parents and friends, don't make for a sick environment that hampers their success.
In addition, much of the progress of the last 20 years has halted. The number of blacks in college doubled from 1965 to 1975, but it has remained about the same ever since, even though the percentage of blacks completing high school has gone up. The number of blacks making more than $25,000 in constant dollars, which doubled from 1965 to 1975, dropped between 1975 to 1985. For black men the drop was from 11.7 percent to 10.8 percent; for black women it was from 2.5 percent to 2.3 percent.
But to whites the question persists: Aren't blacks better off today than they were 20 years ago? The naivete of the question baffles, and alienates, blacks. Jesse Jackson, in a TV intervew during the 20th anniversary of the Montgomery to Selma march, was prodded by a local reporter to comment on the rise in elected officials in the state and nation in the last 20 years. In 1970 there were 1,469 elected black officials and in 1984 there were 5,700.
Jackson replied there is a huge gulf between "participation and parity." He said blacks constitute about 1 percent of all elected officials although they are more than 10 percent of the population. The white TV reporter looked shocked at the reply.
Listen closely, white America, to what Jackson said. There is more political power for blacks in the form of more elected officials; but there is no equality. And blacks are angry that whites would have them celebrate having gained half a loaf, while whites still have the whole loaf.
An example: Many in the black middle class today feel that being smart and working hard doesn't guarantee success. They fear that all their efforts will be for nothing if whites don't feel the need to hire and promote a token black face.
Many blacks feel their hard work will probably go unnotice or they will run into white competitors who might not be as good but who are in the right, white, circles; they are more comfortable for the boss to deal with. As black mothers still tell their children: "You've got to be twice as good to go half as far as a white."
But that's not the way whites see it. An article by Charles Murray, a white conservative thinker, called "Affirmative Racism -- How Preferential Treatment Works Against Blacks," in the Dec. 31 issue of the New Republic, argued that racism is being renewed among whites because whites find work done by blacks to be second-rate. Murray writes that whites accept the shoddy work and keep blacks in the best of jobs, in the best schools, to fulfill the need for black faces. That not only leaves whites resentful but leaves blacks, Murray continues, with the anxiety of feeling they've been hired only because they are black.
From a white perspective, Murray may be right, although many whites have castigated him. But surely, from a black perspective he has created a fantastic tower of myths.
Companies do sometimes hire unqualified blacks and keep them for the sake of having blacks in house. But are blacks to believe that if not for them the white world would be a total meritocracy? The "Peter Principle" promotion of people to their level of incompetence is hardly a black invention.
Here's the news from black America: blacks in America are different because of race. They are victims of racism yesterday and today. It's a different brand of racism today and I offer you three stories of racism, 1985-style; the bitter reality of black life in a land where blacks are equal in the eyes of the law, but where life is more than the law.
The major public area of alienation for blacks is politics.
Even Republicans will happily tell reporters that Jesse Jackson's treatment by white Democrats has been a "disgrace." The Republicans use it as evidence that blacks should be open to their party.
The bottom line of Jackson's campaign, then, is that even when blacks have exercised their maximum political strength, from Jackson's emotion-charged Democratic primary campaign through a politically-disciplined 9-to-1 showing against Reagan, they got nothing for it; not even Democratic platform concessions.
The got nothing from the party's nominee, Mondale, who scornfully ignored the black entrant in the race, Jackson, and Jackson's complaints about the "unfairness" of the primary system. And they got nothing from the party after the election: Normally, the Democratic National Committee black caucus nominates a person to become vice chair of the party, and that nomination is accepted by acclamation. This time, Richard Hatcher was nominated for reelection by the caucus, but his appointment was put to a vote by the entire DNC, and he was defeated.
From the white perspective, this was Hatcher being appropriately punished for denouncing party rules that he had previously endorsed, after Jackson started to complain about them. Whites also point to the fact that Hatcher was replaced with another black -- Illinois comptroller Roland Burris. Yet from the perspective of one member of the congressional black caucus, Burris was an "Uncle Tom." He was used by whites to punish another black. And they were punishing a buddy of one Jesse Jackson.
To a majority of blacks who see in Jackson a stirring leader amid lesser lights in the Democratic party, it is frustrating to see so many whites simply acknowledge they can't vote for a black man and find so many reasons to justify it. Whites can argue that they prefer Hart's ideas, or Mondale's policies. But to blacks in the political grandstand, Jackson's proposals and ideas seem not so much rejected as not considered. And the reason is Jackson is not seen as a serious candidate because he is black.
Party officials seem to ignore that when Jackson says hunger is a gut issue for 40 million Americans in poverty, more than three- fourths of the people he's talking about are white. Also, are blacks the only middle-class people who are struggling to send their children to college? Aren't most Americans opposed to military action in Nicaragua -- not just blacks? But his leadership ability counts for nothing with white Democrats who prefer to set him aside as the black leader.
When Jackson screams about the unfairness of all this, complaining that the party is hard not only on him but on blacks in general, Democratic officials and political columnists lambaste him to show they can be tough. When he suggests that blacks reassess their relationship with the party, they hammer him further as a whiner. Here's a question from the black perspective: Why didn't the same columnists and politicians react the same way when Democratic Party state chairmen from the South and West formed their own steering committee, in essence telling their supporters to reassess their relationship with the party?
To some white eyes, though, blacks seem emotionally, if not irrationally, attached to Jackson and his demagogic style of politicking. White critics rightly point out that Jackson is criticized by his own peers -- black politicians -- for having an inflated ego, for being a maverick and for not following through on all the plans in his foot-stomping speeches. They note the smell of scandal that lingers around Jackson, with government investigations of his organization, PUSH, for improper use of money. They also point to Jackson's ties to anti-American personalties like Castro and Arafat.
Now for the black perspective: Why don't whites apply the same standard to, let's say, Ronald Reagan. Didn't a flag-and-bible-waving Reagan write a letter in 1960 attacking John Kennedy as a closet communist for ideas that boiled to down to putting a new face on "old Karl Marx . . . . Hitler called his (version of Kennedy's ideas) state socialis"? Don't large numbers of white voters go pep-rally crazy over Reagan's demagogic support of school prayer, getting tough on criminals and stopping abortion?
For that matter, questions were raised about Mondale's use of labor's political action committee money during the primary campaign, and Hart was noticed changing his name and age.
So, why is Jackson dismissed by whites as a serious political voice for sins that are blips on the screen for his white counterparts? Why can't his black supporters react as passionately to their candidate as some whites do for their candidate?
Whites take another interesting tack in criticizing Jackson: They cite other black politicians who don't have troubles with whites in the party as evidence that Jackson is a crybaby. Who do they cite?
They name Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.). He is chairman of the powerful House budget committee, they point out. But to get the job, he had to collect his fellow black congressmen and challenge white Democrats on the budget committee who didn't want to give him the chairmanship he was entitled to because they feared it would send the wrong signals to have a black budget chairman. Who else do they cite? They name Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles who, according to exit polls, got 42 percent of the white vote in the California gubernatorial race. Of course, this overlooks the 3.5 percent of whites who admitted to pollsters that they could not vote for a black -- more than the margin of Bradley's loss.
And whites cite Willie Brown, the California speaker of the house, who was originally unable to get his own party to nominate him for that post. Brown went to the Republican side of the aisle and struck a deal to get their votes before he was able to cajole Democrats into supporting him so a Democrat could get the job.
In every case there is a hint that black politicans who are less concerned with issues identified as black concerns will succeed in the long run while the Jacksons of the political world who focus on their black constituency will fail. Blacks can only shake their heads in alienation.
This tale come from a 30-year-old Ivy League graduate who played high school basketball with me. An eight- year managment-level employe in a Philadelphia bank, he is often told by whites and older blacks that he is the beneficiary of the 1960s civil-rights movement as an educated man with a very middle-class salary.
But to drink a beer with him and talk about his professional life is to listen to an alienated man who feels victimized by being black. There is no way to know whether his perceptions are objectively accurate. But it is enough to know that they are his perceptions, and that among successful blacks like him, his perceptions are not uncommon.
After his last promotion he went to work on a group project where he was the only black employe out of nearly 20. He saw challenging assignments given to other young executives and, at least from his perspective, felt the boss didn't think the only black on his staff was up to the work. But, said my pal, a Phi Beta Kappa, "I was going to show him I could do it."
Yet, digging in to establish himself, he thought he found his good work taken without comment, but any slip-up an occasion for every boss to be shown his failings. From his perspective, when it came to the in-house fighting necessary to gain support for his work, the bosses disappeared. But when it came to his white peers, the project vice- president helped with contacts and his own experience.
As my friend tells it, his commitment still didn't slack off. He would work until everyone had left the office to prove his commitment. He bought new suits; and, laughing, remembers buying new deodorants and mouth washes. Buying a new car, even, and offering his colleagues rides home.
It didn't help. He tried to recruit a mentor for himself but ran into slow going. Senior men saw themselves in the younger white men striving there, but not him. "I was never invited to the dinner parties with the vice presidents unless the (city) politicians were there, and that was to have black face in the group," he said.
The situation caused my friend an identity crisis: He became anxious when another black was brought onto the management staff. Having lost the sense that his hard work and smarts could set him apart, he worried that even his lone status among whites -- as the only black -- was being taken away.
He complained; management's eyes glazed over. They wanted to deal with success, not racial problems, they said. Pretty soon he began hearing that the higher-ranking managers were questioning his ability; maybe he was promoted only because he was black was one rumor; for sure he was moved up too quickly. Worst of all, he was not sure his feelings were not due to his own parnoia. He worried that he might not be up to the job.
Here then is an alienated, angry young black face that whites can see in the corporate world. Why are you alienated they ask? If you are going to be moody and angry, why don't you leave?
Whites, like the Reagan administration, are dead set on a "colorblind" society that would neglect not only the history of black- white relations in America, but neglects the reality of current life for blacks in America. There is an advantage to being white. There is a disadvantage to being black. That is why, if whites legitimately want an integrated society, a welcome hand, in the form of goals for getting blacks into companies, as well as a helping hand to watch their career, should be extended.
Short of that, it can lead to a conclusion that blacks should be separate from whites. As diverse a group of black thinkers as Clarence Pendleton, the conservative chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, James Meredith, the civil rights activist who integrated the Universtity of Mississippi 23 years ago, and Louis Farrakhan, the Muslim leader, all agree that desegregation has not helped black America.
"Integration hurt black neighborhoods, hurt black businesses, destroyed black families," Pendleton told me. "You make your choice in this country. You can live black, buy black, work black . . . or you can live like you are white, drive a BMW, live in Bethesda until discrimination hits you. And if you're going to get hit by discrimination, the only thing you can do is go back and live black."
Maybe the worst form of the alienation blacks experience today comes from their inability to communicate with whites who don't see or hear the reality that blacks live.
I was sitting in a restaurant with James Meredith, discussing his struggle to enter the University of Mississippi in 1962, when he repeated to the diners that he felt integration had become a "sham." The only real difference between America 20 years ago and America today is that blacks can eat in restaurant, sleep in hotels, get jobs in the big corporations, he said. They still don't have equality of power. A white at the table, looking at the black college admissions staff worker from a white school and at a black journalist representing my paper, said Meredith must be fooling. Meredith's face tightened. He said nothing.
Later, in private, he said to me that whites are happy with the idea that civil rights is history; it means they don't have to face what remains of racism. "They can politely stay away from blacks as if that is the right thing to do," he said. "I'd rather be lynched than igonored."
I don't know that I'd prefer to die, but being unable to communicate with whites on any key issue that involves race is intolerable. And that emerges most explosively in the differing visions blacks and whites have of current events.
Take Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan. Last year he made widely reported comments offensive to Jews such as calling Hitler a "wickedly great" man. The Jewish and white outrage could not be contained. But what really baffled whites was that there was no parallel concern in the black community? Why is Farrakhan, even now, regarded seriously by blacks, whites ask?
For many blacks I know, at least, their outrage was absent because what they heard was Farrakhan saying that Hitler was an historic figure who did evil. That sounded right to them.
I find this walled-off reality between blacks and whites, in business, in politics, in current events, the stunning reality of life 20 years after the great civil rights movement that was to bring black and white together. That legacy is one my black friends nod at, with sad knowing, and my white friends nod off at, asking what do blacks have to complain about, they're on TV . . .
Whites don't seem to care that blacks are saying America today is just as alienating and infuriating to them as it was 20 years ago. They don't want to hear it.