"I've been doing a little survey," the cabbie said, "and you'd be amazed at what I'm finding out. The leaders are out of step with the people! You suppose you could find some way to use that in your column? I've never had my name in the paper, you know."
"I'm not in the mood for your stupid little jokes," I told him. "The gap between the black leadership and the black rank and file has been all over the newspapers and on several talk shows -- as you well know -- ever since Linda Lichter did that piece for Public Opinion magazine. Unfortunately, I'm afraid she's right. The black leadership . . ."
"I wasn't talking about black leadership," the cabbie said. "I'm talking about white people. They and their leaders are out of step with each other."
Of course I demanded examples for this outrageous statement. Of course I shouldn't have.
"Take 'Star Wars,'sengers tell me that after they think about it, it's not such a hot idea. They think it'll cost too much, probably won't work, that the only thing it will do for sure is move the arms race into outer space. But the white leadership thinks it's the greatest thing since the Gatling gun. Totally out of touch with the people.
"Or you can take the South Africa thing. The white folks who get into my cab sympathize with the black majority there and want to put serious pressure on South Africa to get rid of apartheid. But the white leadership still wants to be cozy with the South African government. I could give you lots of examples. Let me get my notes . . ."
"Don't bother," I said. "I see what the problem is already. You are confusing white leadership with White House leadership. It's not the same thing. If all you're saying is that a lot of Americans don't like President Reagan's policies, then you're not exactly breaking news. That's been the case ever since this administration came into office. But the people -- white people, if you insist -- still support Reagan. You mustn't confuse the White House with white leadership."
"So who's confused?" he said. "Take the school prayer thing. Most of my white customers are willing to keep organized religion out of the public schools, but the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other white leaders are talking about a constitutional amendment to put it in. Or take the women's issue. The women I get in my cab think that the hard-edge feminism scared hell out of everybody and set back the women's cause. They want to tone things down and work within the system. But the women's leadership -- Eleanor Smeal and them -- want to get back in the streets. And for what? To fight for 'comparable worth.' I can't tell you how long it's been since I heard a rank-and-file woman even mention the word 'comparable worth.' And incidentally, most of the women I talk to are in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. But women's leaders, like Phyllis Schlafly, are against it. I'm telling you, white leaders are out of step with the white masses. Why are you scared to put that in the paper?"
I told him that while it is all very well for a journalist to be fearless, it is important, too, for him to learn proper analysis. The fact that he listed both Eleanor Smeal, president of the liberal National Organization for Women, and Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum, as "white leaders" should make clear the absurdity of thinking that white leaders and the "white masses," as he called them, should be in lock step.
"Then how come it's news when the black leadership and the black masses are not in lock step?" he said. "Why is everybody so excited when a lot of black people disagree with Ben Hooks or Minister Farrakhan or the Congressional Black Caucus but not when a lot of white people disagree with Ralph Nader or Rev. Falwell or Mario Cuomo?
"Why is white disagreement taken for granted while black disagreement is used to discredit black leadership? And why don't you put that in your paper?"
"And why don't you mind your own business and leave mine alone?" I explained.