"You surprise me," I told the cabbie. "You've been moaning about the decline in college enrollment for black students -- which, naturally, you blame on the Reagan administration. But you haven't said a word about what's happening on the West Coast."
"I don't know what the collapse of the Dodgers has to do with higher education," the cabbie said.
"Don't be silly," I told him. "I'm talking about the growing attitude out there that maybe too many Asian Americans are rising to the top of the college admissions and maybe it's time to think about some sort of quota. Since it seems to be another manifestation of racism, your favorite whipping boy, I thought you'd be on it like a duck on a June bug."
The cabbie was suddenly serious. "You know, I've been thinking about that," he said, "and I'm worried."
I told him I was worried, too, because implicit in the burgeoning anti-Asian attitude is the assumption not merely that Asians are somehow too bookish but that they might eventually challenge white people as the American leadership class.
"You know, a full quarter of the freshmen at U.C. Berkeley this fall are Asian Americans, and at Cal Tech it's 21 percent. And it's not just the West Coast. Asian Americans are being accepted far beyond their ratio in the population at Brown, Harvard, Yale, MIT -- all the best schools. That's the reason for that quota talk.
"But here's the point: if they will consider artificial barriers to keep Japanese Americans from rising as high as their abilities and exertion will take them, think of the implications for blacks," I said. "You know, it might be smart if the civil rights leadership went to bat for the Asian Americans."
"It would be the dumbest thing they could do," the cabbie said.
Naturally I demanded to know how it could be considered dumb for a civil rights group to oppose racism in any guise. Indeed, I said, not to do so could be considered a form of racism.
"What would the civil rights people do if it was blacks who were making all the top SAT scores?" he asked.
"Well, naturally they would demand that those scores be reflected in actual enrollments," I said.
"And if blacks made the best grades in college and grad school?"
"We'd be in position to insist that these bright young blacks be given a commensurate share of the top leadership posts in government and industry," I said. "And I think the courts would be on our side."
"You're right," the cabbie said. "And wouldn't the same thing be true of Asian Americans?"
"Well, if things keep going the way they're going, Asian Americans will be in charge of government and industry and also the universities."
"Fair's fair," I said.
"And then what happens to us? We've been demanding that white people give us a break -- affirmative action, set-asides, special admissions -- because we have been victims of white racism. They've been buying it, too, because they feel guilty about what they've done to us.
"But what can we demand from the Asian Americans? They never enslaved us. They never kept us in Jim Crow schools or made us ride in the back of the bus. They haven't done a thing to us to feel guilty about. When we start talking to them about minority set-asides, they'll laugh right in our face.
"Don't you see, our whole approach has been built on white guilt. If white people are no longer in charge, their guilt won't matter, and we'll be in a world of trouble."
I resented his implication that black complaints of racism are merely tactical, and I told him so. "Slavery was real. Three centuries of unfairness is real. Discrimination is real. Our demand for redress is simple justice."
"From white Americans, yes," the cabbie said. "But not from Asians. When white people start treating Asian Americans fairly, black folk are going to be out of luck.
"I can see us now, on the outside looking in, and complaining, 'Where are white folks when you really need them?' "