White people, because they don't have to be preoccupied with race, sometimes fail to take into account the racial sensitivities of black people. Witness the Howard Cosell "little monkey" business.
Black people, forced by circumstance to think too much about race, sometimes see racial implications where none exists. Witness the Bill Raspberry-Sur Williams affair.
You know about Cosell. He was broadcasting the season-opening Monday night football game when Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett caught yet another pass. "Look at the little monkey go!," shouted Cosell. Even before the game was over, ABC-TV had gotten so many phone calls from people who read racial offense into the remark that the garrulous Cosell had to deal with the issue right on the air. Unfortunately, he dealt with it by denying he had said what millions of football fans clearly heard him say.
Now let me tell you about that Raspberry fellow. He wrote a column in which he praised the heroism of 11- year-old Sur Williams of St. Louis, who biked off to fetch the police to rescue a 14-year-old girl from a sexual assault.
The column included a report on an outpouring of plaudits and cash for the young hero. It also included this paragraph:
"And yet the question nags: is race at least a partial explanation for this outpouring? Sur Williams and the two teen-agers charged with rape and sodomy in the case are black. The girl is white. Would the reaction have been the same if everybody involved were black? All white? If the races of those involved were reversed?"
I've just returned from vacation to find a spate of indignant letters demanding to know just what the hell I was talking about. "I wouldn't have known (the race of those involved in the incident) except for your column," said a Pennsylvania woman, who said she was proud of young Sur Williams for reasons that had nothing to do with race.
A Florida reader complained that my cynical questions "took away the beauty of Sur's heroic deed." "How many in the country knew that they were two black teen-agers raping a white girl?" she wondered. "My papers made no mention of it, or if they did I didn't notice. Give us credit for (just) wanting to do something to help a fine young man."
A Washington, D.C., man charged me with "a hypersensitivity to alleged racism which many black authors exhibit. . . . Ever since I saw Sur on television and heard his story, I planned to do something for him. I did not plan to send it through you, but I am doing so as a means of getting your attention." His attention-getter was a $1,000 check for Sur Williams.
I thought, at the time of the original column, that the questions were fair. I am delighted to learn that they weren't. I am chagrined, of course, but I am also enormously encouraged to note that, judging from the outraged letters that were waiting for me, my racial sensitivities were overblown.
Cosell's chagrin is (or ought to be) of the opposite sort: he was too insensitive. He should have known that his remarks might offend people whose alleged simian characteristics have been the subject of racist jokes for ages -- even though he said later in a radio broadcast that he often uses the term "little monkey" with reference to his own grandchildren. Still, I am convinced, based on his longstanding record, that he meant no racial offense. I know I didn't. Nonetheless, we both offended.
The least we can do now is admit we goofed and say we're sorry. I goofed, and I'm sorry. How about you, Howard?