The day after the Reagan-Mondale debate, Jesse Jackson was on the phone to complain of the racism surrounding the event. The panel of journalists that questioned the candidates included no black or Hispanic; neither the questioners nor the debaters had anything to say about civil rights; even the interviews of those who had watched the debates were mostly interviews of white people.
In short, according to Jackson, racism still permeates the American society -- even at the upper levels of politics and journalism. Hardly any black American would argue the point. But it does occur to me to wonder whether it illuminates as much as it obscures; whether it brings us closer to solutions or only to despair.
A modest proposal: instead of supposing that racism explains every aspect of the pliht of black Americans, let us, just for the hell of it, play a different game. Let us pretend that racism explains very little and, on that basis, look for other explanations for the problems that confront us.
Take what is perhaps the most critical problem: the economic disadvantage of black America. The statistical evidence is startling. At a time when school integration, fair employment and nondiscrimination are the law of the land, the median income of black families is only 55 percent of that of whites.
Can there be a nonracial explanation for this distressing statistic? Well, let's look at it. The same period that shows black-family income at just over half that of white families also shows the median income of individual black workers outside the economically depressed Deep South as 99 percent of that of individual white workers.
Racism clearly cannot explain both things. What does? Principally this: the percentage of families headed by single women -- the single biggest category of poor families -- has grown enormously among blacks while, during the same period, the number of white households in which both husband and wife work has increased dramatically. If more white families are intact two-earner households while more black families are headed by single women, is it surprising that white-family income should be so much higher?
Indeed, the only race-based explanation for the dismaying gap would be that racism accounts for the breakup of black families. But black-family breakup is also a misleading notion. Many of these families were never two-parent households to begin with. Some 55 percent of black babies born in America today are born to single mothers, many of them adolescent girls with little or no income.
The age at which these young mothers give birth may also help to explain another statistic that is generally attributed to racism: the higher mortality rate among black infants.
What about the much highr rate of joblessness among black teen-agers than among whites? Try asking a different question: is skin color the only significant difference between those youngsters who find jobs and those who don't? Or is there some illumination in the differential academic attainment, place of residence and work attitudes among the two groups?
Or take politics. Can the relative indifference of politicians to the domestic and international interests of blacks be ascribed, at least in part, to the relative absence of black financial support for these politicians? Can some of it result from the balancing of interests among constituencies, which tends to work to the disadvantage of political minorities? Can some of it be due to the fact that blacks are locked overwhelmingly into a single party?
The point of the game is not to absolve white people of their racism but to help black people find solutions to their problems, which, often enough, turn out to have nonracial origins -- when we bother to look for them.
And then there is this: to focus exclusively on racism is to put the Devil in charge of your salvation.