"I've been hoping to see you ever since you wrote that piece against affirmative action," the cabbie said.
I hadn't actually come out against affirmative action; I had simply raised questions regarding the allocation of rights on the basis of ethnicity, while, at the same time, taking cognizance of the fact that ethnically based disadvantage remained a fact of American life. I found myself thinking that next time I should try writing with a tad less subtlety.
"So you believe in colorblind society," the cabbie said, interrupting my mental rewrite. I acknowledged that I did.
"And you think the best way of getting there is to act like you're already there," he continued. I told him that I remained ambivalent on that score but also respected the intellectual integrity of those who argue that you can't cure racism with race-conscious remedies.
"That's what I want to talk to you about," he said. "It seems to me like the only people who talk against race-conscious remedies and what they call 'reverse discrimination' are conservatives. Are you a conservative?"
I confess I bridled at the irrelevancy, but I thought his basic thrust demanded a response. "What's 'conservative' got to do with it?" I said. "Does it seem unreasonable to suspect that insistence upon parceling out society's plums on the basis of color tends to perpetuate color-based animosities? Or that treating people as individuals tends to blur color distinctions? I resent the suggestion that anybody who thinks that way must be a conservative, especially since I happen to know that, in your mind, 'conservative' is a synonym for 'racist.'
"Hey, you got me all wrong," the cabbie objected. "I'm on your side. You and your intellectual friends have finally convinced me that colorblind is the way to go. But I'd still like for you to clear up a couple of things for me.
"First, look at this calendar I just got from one of my Capitol Hill fares." He handed me a copy of the Democratic National Committee's "Campaign to Recapture America" calendar, featuring President Kennedy on the cover. "Look through it," he ordered.
I did. There were photos of JFK at the presidential lectern, on the campaign trail, chatting with family and friends, signing bills, making speeches, having fun.
"Didn't you notice that there's not a black face on any of the pictures?" he said.
"Oh, come on!" I said. "I'm sure whoever put that calendar together was simply looking for good candids of one of America's great presidents. Surely you're not thinking that they went searching for white pictures."
"You miss my point," the cabbie said. "I think whoever did it wasn't thinking about race at all. I imagine they were just being colorblind, and what I wanted to ask you is: why is it when white people consciously think about race, as they did with the space shuttle that blew up, they can come up with a cross section of America; but when they think colorblind, it always comes up white?"
"That's just the sort of nit-picking paranoia that gives conservatives such a field day," I told him. "Mind you, I don't approve of everything the conservatives do, but they do make sense on the question of treating people as people, without all that business of making sure you've got one of these, two of those and 50 percent women. Conservatives . . ."
"I know," the cabbie interrupted. "Conservatives think color and ethnicity should not be the basis for allocating rights."
"Precisely," I said. "They believe that power-sharing should involve individuals as individuals, not as members of ethnic groups."
"Then tell me why, when it comes to South Africa, every conservative in America will tell you that one-man-one-vote is a recipe for disaster. They say they support political change in South Africa, but they insist that there have to be special provisions for the white minority. In other words they want affirmative action for white South Africans. My question is: if affirmative action is so good for South Africa, how come it's so bad for America?"
I dearly wish I'd had time to explain it.