Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

From first contact, blacks and whites had utterly different perceptions of reality where race is a factor

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Newhouse News Service

July 24, 1994

c. Newhouse News Service

On the slave ships carrying Africans to America, the whites and black each viewed the other as cannibals.

To the whites, the supposed savageness of black Africans was used to justify their enslavement. To the blacks, what the whites were doing to them suggested they were fully capable of the ultimate evil.

And so, from their very first contact on their way to America, blacks and whites have had utterly different perceptions of reality where race is a factor.

Whether it’s a white person crossing the street to avoid encountering a young black male (stereotyped as the modern savage), or a black person telling a pollster that O.J. Simpson is being framed, or that crack or AIDS are a conspiracy against the black community (whites’ endless capacity for evil), the alternate realities born in slavery persist.

“The individual unifying cultural memory of black people,” writes Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams, who is black, “is the helplessness of living under slavery or in its shadow.”

Where whites sometimes see what appears to them to be black paranoia and a black obsession with race, blacks see what appears to them to be white denial, an unwillingness or inability to connect the dots to reveal the true contours of racism.

To blacks, slavery, and then Jim Crow, are the prima facie evidence of the extraordinary lengths whites will go to oppress and degrade them. If they could do that, the thinking runs, what wouldn’t they do, even if today it is done more subtly.

As the old joke goes, any black in America who isn’t paranoid is crazy.

If slavery and its aftermath do not inform a person’s vision of race, says psychiatrist William Grier, that vision is distorted.

“If you don’t go back to slavery, you’d have to assume that all living blacks are geniuses at digging a hole for themselves,” says Grier, the co-author of the 1968 classic, “Black Rage.”

But, he says, that’s what whites commonly do.

“There is an inclination on the part of white people to deny the history of race in this country, to say that race relations began when they were born, that they haven’t lynched anybody, they haven’t enslaved anybody, so that all that stuff’s irrelevant,” says Grier, who is black and lives in San Diego.

Political scientist Paul Sniderman, co-author of “The Scar of Race,” which examines racial attitudes, warns there is a danger in indulging this sense of historical grievance.

First, he thinks that angry victimology is much more common among those blacks who end up being quoted in the newspaper than in the black community at large. When he listens to black focus groups, says Sniderman, who is white, he hears little sympathy for those who seek to blame others for their problems.

Furthermore, he says that absorption with grievance blinds those blacks who subscribe to it to what his polling indicates are improving, and more flexible, white racial attitudes.

Mohammed Naseehu Ali, a black African from Ghana who has been in the United States for several years, attending first boarding school and now Bennington College in Vermont, also sees a self-destructive edge in many black Americans’ obsession with a history of mistreatment.

“They take the burden of their history, what happened to the slaves, what happened to their grandfathers or their fathers, and they nurse it in their hearts,” says Ali.

While he, for example, saw the O.J. Simpson case simply as a tragedy, he noticed a tendency on the part of black Americans to embrace Simpson as a victim “even if he’s completely wrong.”

“White people look at it more for what it is,” says Ali. But then he adds, tellingly, “maybe that’s because they think they don’t have anything to lose.”

When race is involved, though, blacks seldom feel they have nothing to lose.

Patricia Turner, a professor of African-American and African studies at the University of California, Davis, recalls as a child her parents’ relief when they learned that the man who killed all those student nurses in Chicago, Richard Speck, was white. It was the same relief they felt whenever someone notorious in the news was not black, says Turner.

Turner, author of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture,” suspects that even some blacks who believe Simpson is probably guilty do not want to tell a white pollster that.

And, says Patricia Williams, the New York law professor, there is good reason for such feelings of racial identity.

Williams, in her book, “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” recalls the case of Tawana Brawley, the black teen-ager who said she was kidnapped, raped and abused by a group of white men in upstate New York. When her story fell apart, Williams says, the cry went up: “Who will ever again believe a black woman who cries rape by a white man?”

And yet, Williams says, when it turned out that Charles Stuart, a white Bostonian, lied when he accused a black man of murdering his pregnant wife to hide his own guilt, “There was not a story I could find that carried on about ‘who will ever believe’ the next white man who cries murder.’

If blacks exercise a double standard on race, it is, some argue, to compensate for a more powerful and pervasive, if sometimes less obviously conscious, double standard applied by white society.

Grier recalls reading about the response of some blacks after Brawley’s story was exposed to be a fraud. They continued to believe her, and when pressed by a reporter, responded, “If it didn’t happen, it could have happened.”

Grier himself has a similar take on the Simpson case.

“If they didn’t frame him, it’s because nobody thought about framing him, everybody was busy framing somebody else,” he says. “White people see the L.A. police department and prosecutor’s office as a relatively neutral organ of the state. I don’t know any black in the area who sees them that way.”

Grier tells the story of his son, actor David Alan Grier, a regular on the Fox comedy show “In Living Color,” who was filming a scene in Los Angeles, dressed as a buppie getting into a $100,000 Maserati. Oblivious to the whirring cameras, Grier says, “The cops drive up and grab my son and say, “Whose car is this?”

“I don’t think a white person’s ever had an experience like that,” says Grier. As a black person, he says, “Your view of the world is truly different.”

Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint agrees.

“We still don’t feel like we’re full members of society,” says Poussaint. “We still have so many examples of mistreatment that operate in institutionalized ways, whether it’s the studies of blacks and whites going to buy a car and the whites getting it cheaper, or discrimination in housing, or trying to hail a taxicab.”

The sense of psychic assault is so pervasive, says Poussaint, that even when he hears a thoroughly bizarre story about some conspiracy against the black community, “I just can’t dismiss it that quickly.”

In her book Turner analyzes such seemingly paranoid rumors as those claiming that national fried chicken franchises are owned by the Ku Klux Klan and add a secret ingredient to sterilize black men, and the more generalized fears of a conspiracy to destroy the black community with crack or AIDS.

As absurd as they sound, Turner says the rumors serve a purpose: They enunciate generalized black grievances – and mobilize resistance – against companies that exploit the black community or peddle destructive products, or against a government that too little values black life.

While it is hard to know how widely people believe the rumors Turner writes about, in a recent national survey of the black community, University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson found that 25% of blacks agree that AIDS is an anti-black conspiracy. (In that and other surveys, Dawson found a racial gap of 20% to 30% on a wide variety of political issues, even those with little ostensible connection to race.)

Turner is cautious about polling. Her experience in interviewing people is that someone who says they “believe” a particular rumor, often mean that they find it “plausible.”

And, for example, the AIDS rumor resonates with a people familiar with the Tuskegee experiment, in which for 40 years, until the early 1970s, the Public Health Service observed black men die of syphilis, rather than treat them, without letting them know what it was the health service was doing.

And, of course, it was something more than black paranoia that led Denny’s, the nation’s largest full-service family restaurant chain, to recently pay $54 million (while acknowledging nothing) to settle lawsuits by black customers who complained of systematically rude and inferior service.

Turner thinks it is more likely that the racism charged against Denny’s is commonplace, and that Denny’s served as a lightning rod for black resentment because it is, like many of the rumor targets in her book, the biggest.

It was Turner, in her book, who brought together the scholarship indicating that blacks and whites viewed each other as cannibals at the onset of the relationship.

It was, she found, a rumor that they would soon be eaten that precipitated the 1839 slave mutiny aboard the Spanish slaver, Amistad. The leader of the mutiny, Cinque, was quoted as saying, “We may as well die in trying to be free as to be killed and eaten.”

Meanwhile, white public reaction to the capture of the mutineers focused in part on a pointy-toothed rebel named Konoma. Konoma insisted his people filed their teeth to attract women, but to the whites it was evidence of cannibalism.

Konoma aside, Turner says, it is only in the past 20 years that the myth of widespread cannibalism in Africa has come undone.

In this context, it is interesting that NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis decried the intense focus on the Simpson case as racist because there had not been a parallel obsession with Jeffrey Dahmer.

To whites, this may have seemed a non sequitur. After all, Dahmer had never been a hero to anyone.

But to blacks it may have had subconscious echoes back to the days of Cinque, and the need yet today to place the interplay of evil and race in its proper perspective. Dahmer, after all, made his reputation by murdering and then eating young men of color.

Ultimately, Turner believes, America will continue to have separate black and white realities until blacks can be “shown evidence that all contemporary white leaders are not in fact out to destroy them, and whites … accept that their ancestors treated the ancestors of black Americans so harshly that the present generation still bears the scars.”


Written by jonathantilove

August 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm

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