A few weeks ago in this space I discussed a strange attitude many white people in this country display toward blacks in both their public statements and their personal encounters. They affect an invincibly uncritical, even fawning gaze that is, in fact, profoundly condescending. How wonderful . . . how nice . . . how fascinating -- the black, no matter what he does, can do no wrong.
There is another element in all this that I would like to elaborate on. It is the inverse of the double standard that requires hypocritical good chee to be maintained at all times in public. The private double standard, on display in whites-only gatherings, goes in precisely the opposite direction. Blacks, both here and abroad, are talked about in much more critical, unforgiving terms than anyone else. It seems to satisfy something quite unattractive in those who talk this way to give vent to their unfair appraisals of the competence and civility of blacks.
None of the people I know who fall into this category will admit it. All are stunned and affronted when you make the observation concerning them. These tend to be people -- at least in my world -- who spend a rather considerable amount of time charging other whites with being racists. That may even be one of the things they do for a living, in politics or journalism: call other people racists. Yet they are themselves infected with a variation of the disease.
I don't suppose that such people have a corner on the attitude, of course, but rather that it is a fairly general condition among whites in this country. And, in any event, I do not intend to name names. I will get down to cases though. It struck me that there was something very fishy going on late last winter, for example, in the almost universal despair being expressed over the bloody events in Zimbabwe. There was (and is) insurrection, interracial and intertribal killing, lots of it and pretty ugly, too. But was all the I-told-you-so, see-they-aren't-ready, this-is-a-descent-into-savagery business even partially justified? Why are so many white people so ready to leap to this contemptuous conclusion? By what standard of political violence (Argentine? Soviet? Indochinese?) are they measuring the violence in Zimbabwe?
For that matter, by what standard are they measuring this so-called descent into savagery? Never mind what has been perpetrated on a huge scale by whites in the 20th century (the Holocaust, the Soviet purges). Just amble back through your newspaper for the late-winter period when the Zimbabwe news was big and look around at certain incidents happening elsewhere without a whole lot of lugubrious speculation about reversion to terrible primitive states and the rest.
I mean the Assam "communal clashes" in which about 3,600 people from that unfortunate Indian state were massacred. I mean as well -- numbers aren't everything, the quality of the deprediation counts, too -- the unspeakable episode in that barroom in New Bedford, Mass. That, in case you put it out of your mind, was the one in which it was reported that a bartender and around a dozen patrons stood by and watched a bunch of men repeatedly raping and beating a young woman for about two hours, many of the onlookers actually cheering the action on. What sly expressions of exhausted tolerance would you have encountered, what silent but ostentatiously resigned shakings of the head, had this been news reported from Harare or Lagos -- or Watts? Except, of course, that the accused assailants were white.
Mutilation by some brutish group is also a big-ticket item when it occurs in the African context. It is taken as suggestive evidence that the better part of a whole continent full of people is about to sink into an orgy of indiscriminate hacking. As an example of the kind of episode that can set off these dire intimations, I offer the famous affair of a few years back: a gang of marauders spent two days intermittently torturing and carving up the unfortunate inhabitants of two white households they had invaded, killing seven, including an eight-months pregnant woman. "His chest was pierced with a meat-carving fork," the papers wrote of one victim, ". . . and the letters XXX were cut into his flesh."
In fact the only reason this did not set off the African alarm is probably that it happended in the vicinity of Beverly Hills, being the famous all-white Charles Manson "family" affair. I don't remember any warnings that Rodeo Drive was about to revert to savagery -- though this is about as good an example of it as you'll get. So much for savagery. You want simple mass madness in a crowd, the mob of reveling celebrants going beserk -- for which a drunk African soldiery has become the preferred model? A couple of people were actually trampled to death -- yes, trampled to death -- last New Year's Even in that well-known hotbed of primitivism, London's Trafalgar Square.
I am aware that in parts of Africa there are cultures and tribes that are in reality very primitive by our standards, behaving no better than the forebears of all the best people in this country did a few hundred years ago. They are about three centuries behind. They believe in witchcraft, for example, which we officially got over (if you don't count some of the less plausible spiritual and religious cults that thrive in this country now) as long ago as 1692 when we executed our last witches in Salem, Mass. (19 were hanged and one was pressed to death).
The last "respectable" form of racism against blacks is the kind of gasping and sighing that goes with our response to such things when they occur in modern Africa -- or about cities in this country that are governed by blacks. Washington, the city I live in, is an example. One is treated to endless snickers about the incompetence of our city government, snickers from white members of Congress who come from places that are often governed far worse. They get quite offended when you say so.
"What you are really saying," said a friend of mine, with a smirk, when I had laid all this on him a while ago, "is that 'everybody does it'." I felt less entrapped than vindicated, because that is exactly what I am saying. It is the only point I seek to make. But surely it has its implications and its own imperative for whites: look around you. Look again. Think again. And come off it.