My friend didn't disagree with a recent column suggesting that black Americans -- particularly the black middle class -- must take primary responsibility for helping to lead the black underclass out of its poverty.
Indeed, he went out of his way to voice his agreement that it would be silly for the victims of racism to look to racists for their salvation. What bothered him, he said, was that racists reading the column could find in it support for their white-supremacist views.
"I no longer pay much attention," he said, "when (he named two blacks in the Reagan administration) say things that echo what the racists are saying. I've lost respect for them anyway. But when a respected person like yourself gives ammunition to the racists, then I guess my reaction is a little different. Doesn't it bother you that people will use what you say against the interest of black people?"
Well, of course it does. Does that mean I should stop saying what I believe to be true? I don't think so. Speaking the truth as you see it can create problems, no doubt. But the alternative strikes me as a good deal worse.
I first became aware of the problem years ago when I suggested that black Americans -- or at any rate the black leadership -- was expending too much time, energy and political capital in its push for busing, and far too little on improving education for black children.
That view, as far as I could ascertain, came very close to being the black American consensus. But it also served nicely the ends of those who thought racial integration was an abomination. I cringed when my columns were excerpted for editorials in opposition to school desegregation, or saw my words inserted by bigoted legislators into the Congressional Record in support of their views.
I took pains to put in enough qualifiers so that readers would understand that while I thought racial integration was a commendable goal, improved education for black children -- wherever they attended school -- was a better one. But there was no way I could keep editorialists or speakers or legislators from leaving out the qualifiers and reporting (accurately) that I thought we were spending too much time, money and energy on getting our children into white classrooms.
I finally stopped worrying about it. The only way to stop this unwelcome use of my words, I decided, was either to stop saying anything at all or else to stop saying anything with which the "enemy" might agree -- even if, on a particular point, the "enemy" and I weren't that far apart.
I recall my first columns condeming Uganda's Idi Amin. I thought his administration was a murderous disgrace. So did most of the world, including most black Americans. But some friends thought I shouldn't say so because there were white bigots who would use my words to discredit black leadership generally.
And most particularly, I recall the long years when America's black leaders avoided any public statement implying that some of the problems facing blacks had to be solved by blacks themselves. Those same leaders would be candid enough when talking to black audiences, including their own friends and families. But for public consumption, the culprit was always racism, the solution always in the hands of white people. No fuel for the racists in that.
But not much help for racism's victims, either. One of the results of that blame-it- all-on-the-white-folks mentality is that it helped to produce a generation of children who saw themselves not as bright, capable youngsters with the ability to take control of their own destinies but as essentially helpless victims of a racism they could do nothing about.
It still bothers me that my words -- perhaps including these -- may provide fuel for people who do not have my interest at heart. But I believe that it is past time for us to start speaking with as much candor as we can muster about the problems that still confront us.
It is fair to say that racism is the source of many of those problems. But it is also fair to say that we have to take the lead in their solution: that there are some things we'll simply have to do for ourselves.