"You're not going to believe this one." These are usually the first words I hear whenever I have a talk with a certain white friend of mine. He works for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and specializes in the kind of case that I would rather associate with the 1940s and 1950s.
Most recently, it was the case of the black woman who worked as an agent for a major real estate agency, and who was repeatedly denied the opportunity to work with white clients in predominantly white neighborhoods. She won a $125,000 settlement from the company, which also agreed to change its practices. Just a few weeks ago, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing agreed to open up jobs to blacks whose employment opportunities had been restricted for decades. The victims, several hundred of them, won a settlement including $1.4 million in back pay and more than $5 million in future pay and pension adjustments.
In another example, involving the Ironworkers Local 201, which was denying memberships to blacks and depriving them of job referrals, some 130 lawyers were recruited to represent 173 victims. So far, after individual hearings, 80 cases have been settled for a total of more than $1 million.
Then there was the case of the black man who was seeking a romantic weekend in a nearby hotel -- with his wife -- but was turned away. The explanation was imaginative: he was told that guests had to live outside a 60-mile radius from the hotel and, sorry, he lived too close to get a room.
The television advertisements for a certain chain of fitness centers now display an incredible number of black people jogging and working out, along with the the words, "An Equal Opportunity Club." Not long ago, there were no black people on those commercials, part of a pattern and practice of discouraging blacks all along the East Coast. Or, where black memberships were sought, they were steered to clubs in predominantly black neighborhoods with inferior equipment. Blacks were told only about the most expensive memberships, told that cash was necessary and not checks. When they returned with cash, they were told that cash was not accepted. It was even more obvious than this. When blacks signed up at the clubs, the letters "D.N.W.A.M." were penned in beside their names. It stood for "Do Not Want As Member." The clubs were sued for discrimination.
My friend's colleagues have also gone to court in an endless stream of rental discrimination cases against white real estate agents and landlords who do not want black tenants.
Not every example comes from my friend. There are the country clubs throughout the land that have, in their infinite generosity, finally agreed to offer, typically, one membership to a black person in order to avoid the loss of a televised golf tournament. Sometimes, these aren't even full memberships, just "honorary." There is the case of the fictitious sexual assault story that ran in the campus newspaper at George Washington University. It was apparently believable because the perpetrators were said to be two smelly black males and the victim was a white woman.
Sometimes, I experience it personally. There was the day the manager of a bookstore followed me, with little guile, along the aisles of books. I showed him my press pass. "I know exactly what you're doing," I said. "Believe me, there are better ways to get publicity."
"We've had a lot of shoplifting recently," he said sheepishly, as if this justified his shadowing of blacks.
You'd think that we might have achieved a different kind of societal standard. That's the impression one gets from arguments about civil rights laws that are "excessive" because employers might be forced to give too many jobs to blacks or other minorities. "Why is it," my father often asks, "that people only start talking about 'quotas' when a black person shows up looking for a job?"
Maybe part of the answer came the other night when I was awakened by the sounds of a struggle on the street. I opened my window and leaned out to see a white man shouting into an alley, demanding that the black robber return the $2 that had just been stolen from him. He used a racial slur to hail the robber. The white fellow, who then saw me, apologized for his remark. I ignored the slur and asked if he was okay. "Yes," he said. "It could have been worse."
Somehow, I know he won't remember that it was a black neighbor who asked if he had been injured, or that most of the police officers who showed up to investigate were black. Somehow, I know that all he will remember is that he was robbed by one of those niggers.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.