I write at a time when it isn't even known who will win the mayoralty election in Chicago, let alone whether the threats of violence will materialize. But the terrible noises coming out of Chicago ever since Harold Washington's nomination, and the national resonance they struck, suggest to me that we have been in the presence of something more fundamental than a nasty racial battle over who gets to govern Chicago. The election itself is Mrs. O'Leary's cow. What matters is what it ignited: a kind of wind-borne fire of racial animosities that we in this country have been pretending for years now didn't exist. Only "extremists" harbored such feelings any longer, we were told: all the best people said so.
Except that . . . all the best people were themselves learning to speak a new racial argot at the same time: a kind of dissembling, hypocritical, ghastly Goody Two-shoes language of condescension, specially created by your tonier white people over the past couple of decades for discussions of--and with--blacks. I don't for a moment suppose that the feelings being disguised by the new Whitespeak are your violent, hater-type resentments, for which there is still a certain limited political constituency in this country. They are more in the way of suspicions and ambivalences of which those who harbor them are vaguely ashamed; and they are unspoken assumptions of racial superiority, decked out in a kind of syrupy--or is it greasy?--noblesse oblige.
I first noticed this a few years ago when, leafing idly through an alumnae magazine, I started reading a piece about a young woman who was studying to be--I think it was--a doctor. I hadn't gotten very far in the piece and there was no photograph, when suddenly I thought: I know this young woman is black . . . how do I know she is black? Fascinated now, I went back over what I had read. There were no demographic or cultural "tips." What there was was a cloying, breathless, isn't-it-wonderful tone and an utter absence of the straightforward, critical, serious approach taken to all other subject matter in the magazine. The overwhelming impression was of unbelievability, the principal unbeliever being, one couldn't help thinking, the person who had written the article.
I have seen this attitude in play in a hundred different situations since then. A luncheon table conversation comes to mind: a dreary foundation-academic event where a black participant put forward a screwy idea and got pretty abusive in propounding it, and none of us--all white--around that particular table said so. We just sat there and smiled ever so tightly and kept on saying, well, that was of course very interesting, but we weren't sure we could buy it completely and so forth. I wanted to say: "What are you . . . crazy or something?" Why didn't I? If there was white racism (mine) at work here, I am certain that it lay in my patronizing forbearance, not in my inclination to take the guy on. But I am also certain that my white tablemates would have regarded any challenge I made to him as evidence of a dreadful want of racial sensitivity on my part.
Black people must sense the put-down that is inherent in all this false bonhomie, in the invincible refusal of so many of their white friends to react to them as people. Why would they not? People always are quick to sense inauthentic emotions, and White America, via its establishment institutions, not just the conduct of numerous individuals, has increasingly turned this unrelentingly cold, beamish look on America's blacks. What it bespeaks is a different kind of psychic barrier that whites have thrown up to distance and insulate themselves from blacks. The barrier does not keep blacks out of buildings, but it does keep them out of consideration as real people.
Hypocrisy, of course, has its social uses. It is certainly preferable to many of the things it replaces or covers for--such as, for example, outright meanness or physical and social abuse. And it can buy you time until a great social upheaval acquires a degree of familiarity and ease. But there are costs. The phoniness of the attitude gives it a limited lifespan and a potential for explosion. Whites, pretending to all sorts of sentiments they don't have, are bound to let their suppressed and unresolved feelings leap to the surface in time. You could see the arc of movement in Chicago: from early efforts of the media and others to ignore Harold Washington's tangles with the law to later inclinations to talk of nothing else.
Many blacks I know, who see the aren't- you-all-just-wonderful put-down of themselves by white people for what it is, nonetheless see no reason that blacks, so long deprived of equal advantage in this country, should not get the good of it. And some black politicians have played it like a violin. But I think this new form of racial insult should be challenged. It is dangerous. You sometimes get a feeling, listening to white people who are its greatest and seemingly most committed proponents, as they mutter about their growing "disenchantment," that what they have done is to put black Americans--as a class, as a people, as a "they"--on some kind of probation. Blacks were expected to be all good. This silly thought, of course, did not prove out. Now, it will be confided--and the breathtakingly arrogant question starts to form--"I wonder if we weren't wrong."
Wrong about what? About the overdue urgency of trying to eliminate officially sanctioned racial repression in America in the '50s and '60s? Wrong about believing there was--and is--a national obligation to try to make amends for some of the injustice that has been done? No, these questions are not reached. Wrong means wrong about "them." Every incident in which a black shows up badly (never mind that there are ample white counterparts) is taken as evidence that perhaps "we" were wrong.
This country has come a long way in its racial relations, but not nearly as far as many white people suppose. The artificiality of their attitude toward blacks, the blacks' own resentment and exploitation of these confused feelings, the subsurface discontents of all just waiting to be stirred--all this suggests to me we have miles yet to go. We could begin--some of us, anyway--by getting rid of that sickly, fixed smile we wear for interracial occasions.