"I suppose it's too much to expect you to apologize," I told the cabbie, "but at least now maybe you'll stop calling the Reagan administration racist."
"What happened?" the cabbie said. "Somebody at the White House offer you a job or something?"
"What happened," I said, ignoring the insult, "is that the administration has been demonstrating its interest in civil rights. I'm not talking just about the president, who, as everybody knows, is a nice man. I'm talking across the board. The Justice Department has filed a desegregation suit in Alabama. The assistant attorney general for civil rights has been to Mississippi to look into voting problems. The president has come out with a proposal for fair-housing enforcement. There's a new push for giving federal contracts to minority entrepreneurs, and . . ."
"Oh, you're talking about Black Interest Week," the cabbie said.
"Black WHAT?" I said.
"You know, Black Interest Week. You remember National Brotherhood Week, when white people would take black people to lunch and invite black ministers to preach in their churches and everybody would go around grinning at us? Well, they don't do that anymore, but Black Interest Week is sorta the same thing. It is fun while it lasts, but you shouldn't let yourself get too excited."
I told him that it was just such cynicism that makes it so difficult for black people to work out any sort of accommodation with the Reagan administration. "If the president doesn't deal with black issues, you call him a racist. If he does deal with black issues you dismiss it as political cynicism. Black Interest Week indeed!"
"I'm only doing what you're always telling me to do," the cabbie said. "I'm putting things in context. We're talking about the same people who almost messed up the voting rights extension, who tried to give a tax break to racist schools, who tried to wipe out the Legal Services Corporation, who are trying to do a number on the Civil Rights Commission. When people like this suddenly get interested in civil rights, you have to wonder why."
"Okay, Mr. Cynic," I said. "Suppose you tell me why."
"I'll tell you a story," the cabbie said. "A couple of weeks ago, I took the wife to one of those high-brow restaurants. It was a mistake, of course, and I should have walked right back out as soon as I saw we were the only black folks in there. It was clear right from the beginning that they didn't want us in there. The maitre d' didn't want to believe we had reservations. The waiter was impatient and nasty. He was so surly to us that the people at other tables started to notice.
"Then, just about the time we were ready for our coffee and dessert, he started acting like he had just got religion or something. 'Is everything all right, sir?' 'Did you enjoy your meal?' 'Can I get you something else? The cherries jubilee arereally quite nice tonight.'"
"I suppose you're telling me he was wangling for a tip," I said.
"That's what I thought, too," the cabbie said. "But my wife had a different notion. She said it wasn't about us at all; the whole thing was for the white people at the next table. He had been treating us so bad that it was turning them off. He knew we wouldn't be back anyway, but he didn't want to lose them."
"I don't understand what your little story has to do with the Reagan administration," I told him.
"I didn't think you would," the cabbie said.