Political cynics use the myth of U.S. classlessness to drive a wedge between blacks and whites.
It'slate afternoon, and I'm in a Howard University radio studio being interviewed. The Senate has just failed to override the president's veto of the civil rights bill. The interview is part of a book tour; I'm promoting a work of mine about social class in America. The theme of my book is that this country is in the grip of a myth of classlessness that renders us powerless to solve our social problems. By nourishing the myth, George Bush, the media and the establishment at large keep people in the dark about their shared class interests, pump fresh life into the politics of race and perpetuate, indefensibly, an array of scams amounting to upper-middle class welfare.
The talk show hosts I've dealt with thus far on the road concentrate on questions about the nature of the influence the myth exerts on tax policy, budgets, health care and related issues. I'm expecting more of the same at Howard U.
But it's the day the Senate fails to override, as I said, and my interviewers -- two young blacks named Derek McGinty and Daryl Johnson -- are upset. They come on hard about the veto. Do I -- this visiting author who claims to know something about class -- realize what the president's action means for the class called blacks? Why doesn't my book have more to say about the injustice -- the class injustice -- that civil rights legislation tries to repair?
For 10 to 15 minutes the interviewers hold fast to the subject of group prejudice, group hatred. What do I know about the effect of this prejudice on school and job performance? Do I know how group prejudice actually works? How can the successful black -- the pro athlete, the Sugar Ray who stays a long while at the top -- how can this man ever achieve real mobility and acceptance?
Nothing in this is surprising, of course. In theory the right answers -- the right ones for me to give -- couldn't be plainer. I've written a book insisting that it's time for an end to the politics of race and the beginning of a serious politics of class. I'm here in this studio to get across, with all the force I can muster, the truth that working people black and white must stop being suckered by politically powerful cynics who play on their suspicions of each other.
"Listen up a minute. I have a tough message, and you're going to hate it at first but hear me out. My vote this afternoon if I had one would have been to override, but I'm here to tell you that you're wrong to let this fester, wrong to keep coming back to the injustice. I understand the obsession, but it's no good. The civil rights struggle produced great victories. It was indispensable -- but now it's meat for people who want to kill off hope for the political solidarity that alone can make a difference to all working people regardless of color.
"The manipulators are in command, believe me. Every campaign for the redress of grievances strengthens them, not you. Every push for affirmative fairness drives a deeper wedge between working whites and working blacks. Should it be this way? Of course not -- but it is. And we've got to understand that as long as the drive for fairness is powerfully and persuasively represented to be a drive for special privilege, none of us -- blacks or whites -- has a shot at a decent life.
"Daryl, Derek, listen to me: only when you and the rest of us start reaching for class unity, not race unity, only when you see that there are other, better ways to fight for your cause and mine than down the civil rights road -- only then will the working-class majority begin to grow its way past despair."
Did Isay any of this? Not one word. I blew it. Under the pressure of Capitol Hill events, the anger of two young men and my own need to prove my ''sensitivity,'' I threw away my own argument, the themes of my own book. For 10 minutes I joined with my interviewers in speaking not about class disadvantages but about black disadvantages; not about the ways in which bad schools, bad jobs, bad housing and fearful crime rates wreck life for blacks and whites, but about the special hardships and anguish of one American minority.
I'm not writing this piece as a confessional -- or in the spirit of a flak catcher ashamed of having been Mau-Maued. My interviewers were never less than polite. I am writing to testify that even at this late date, we -- liberals like myself, people who believe we know how the game is played -- don't yet know all that we need to know.
In theory race politics is the hoariest American story. Reagan on ''welfare cheats,'' Bush on Willie Horton, David Duke on affirmative action -- each episode has produced tons of commentary. Historians black and white have traced the origins of the basic manipulative strategies into the 19th century -- the Reconstruction era and beyond. Time and again right-minded editorialists have patiently totted up the terrible costs, explaining how race politics debases discourse, turns white working people against blacks and vice versa, blocks social progress.
No matter. In a quarter hour in a Howard University radio studio I learned what editorialists tend to forget -- it takes enormous strength of will to stick to the point that matters and to insist, flat out, that the problems that most plague blacks are not at bottom race problems. I learned what should have been obvious, but wasn't -- that the temptation to pursue images of one's own sympathy and concern is irresistible. Regardless of your theme, regardless of your earnest chapters on the paramount importance of class, you can always be sucked back into the style of politics that serves the interests only of those who want no change.
The other day Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) told a Wall Street Journal reporter that the fundamental issue is ''class, not race.'' It's essential, he said, ''to at least start thinking about it, start talking about it. Let's be honest. We're not doing that.'' It's part of my pride that I knew his point was right and knew it before he spoke. But that's irrelevant. The lesson that counts is the one that my quarter hour at Howard U. drove home. It's a lesson about the unbearable seductiveness of race politics -- a lesson about how swiftly, under the gun, even the well-intentioned can lose touch totally with the truth.
The writer is professor of humanities at Amherst College.