HOUSTON -- Near the end of his daily talk show "Person to Person" on black-listener KCOH radio recently, host Michael Harris interrupted a caller blaming American Jews for Israel's handling of Palestinians and aid to South Africa.
"Do you feel a kinship to black South Africans?" Harris asked.
"Yes I do," the caller said.
"All right," Harris said. "If you can feel a kinship to black South Africans, some of whom are policemen and soldiers who are helping the regime that oppresses them, then why can't you feel some sort of kinship with an American Jewish person who has no control over what Israel does and may be as opposed to the South African regime as you are? When you start lumping people together, you are stereotyping, and that's dangerous."
For several years during the 1980s, exchanges of that sort did not take place on this city's only black-oriented radio talk show. In the old days, when a caller expressed hostile sentiment about non-blacks, Harris either agreed or kept silent. His mission, he said, was to prove to his audience that he was not an Uncle Tom or "a white man's kind of Negro," as he put it.
To satisfy his audience, Harris said, he felt compelled to go with the flow, the stream of conversation from black callers. It was decidedly hostile toward non-blacks: Koreans, Vietnamese, Hispanics and especially whites.
One caller constantly referred to whites as "those people with those dog-like noses." More often whites were referred to as "devils." It was a given in the "Person to Person" universe that all whites were alike. The life experiences of Harris, 38, who grew up in redneck East Texas, attended the multicultural University of Houston and worked as a newscaster at a country and western station in Pasadena, Tex., taught him that, while some whites were jerks, not all of them were evil. "But I felt bullied into silence," he said, "by people who intimidate you into not being nice to persons who are not black."
But a counter-pressure was pushing Harris: his conscience. When he finished a morning show, he said, he would feel embarrassed that he had contributed to a few hours of hate-mongering. He said he was reluctant to tell friends when his show was on the air because he did not want them to think that the Michael Harris they heard on KCOH was the real Michael Harris.
A catharsis came one day when he heard that several white South African children were killed in a school bus accident. It happened only a short time after black South Africans had been gunned down by white authorities. Harris said he initially felt no remorse, only a sense of revenge, for the dead white children.
"I realized I was headed for trouble," he said. "I looked inside myself and found my real belief was that a life is a life. . . . When blacks commit crimes against whites, there is outrage in the white community. When whites commit crimes against blacks, there is outrage in the black community. When anyone commits a crime against anyone, there is outrage in Michael Harris. That is the real me."
Month by month for the last year, Harris has transformed his on-air personality. He became less dogmatic. Eight months ago, in an unprecedented gesture, he sought members of the American Jewish Committee and invited them to KCOH to discuss stereotypes. The black-Jewish discussion with committee leaders Suzanne Sachnowitz and David Mintzberg has become a regular feature on "Person to Person." With his Jewish guests and black listeners, Harris said he now feels freer to probe and provoke, rather than posture, turning his show into a daily seminar on race.
If Harris has changed, his callers remain pretty much the same. One recent morning, the first caller, who identified himself as "Chris," said integration was a failure "because Caucasians don't understand us, they don't know how to educate us."
Another caller, "C.C.," defended D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, whose drug trial is a frequent topic on the show. "No one is created perfect," C.C. said. "We're all going to make mistakes." Of 10 callers who brought up Barry, only one said he was to blame for his problems. Most of the others said he was a victim of selective enforcement of the laws, that he was entrapped.
One caller, "Chuck," said Barry should not be held to white standards. "We keep hearing this word morality," Chuck said. "We have to remember we did not come from a society of monogamists. That is the white man's society. We had African kings that had many wives."
For his morning talk show, which runs from 8 to 11, Harris operates in a ground floor studio with fish-bowl windows looking out at the passing scene near the corner of Almeda and Wichita in the black Neartown section. He stands up during the entire show, effortlessly switching from caller to caller, stacking tapes of commercials that he has to play, even looking out the window and, like the deejay in Spike Lee's movie, "Do the Right Thing," saying hello on-air to passersby he recognizes.
Doing the right thing, for Harris, is still an uncertain enterprise. "It feels good not to have a knot in your stomach and be afraid that somebody's going to think that you think like the hate-mongers," he said. "But being honest with yourself on radio is a hard price to pay. If you appear overly militant, you lose advertisers. If you appear too moderate, the militants attack your credibility. For a while, I felt like I had no support anywhere."
On the day the caller attacked American Jews for Israel's role in the Mideast and South Africa, Harris took off his earphones during a break and shook his head. "We as blacks have got to make sure we don't do what we claim is being done to us," he said softly. "We can't put whites and Jews all into one basket. Some are bad, all are bad. Some can't be trusted, all can't be trusted. You can't make blanket statements like that."