The first years of television are, in my memory, filled with Uncle Miltie, Ed Wynn and Time For Beanie, all on a tiny, ten inch screen. The images were dim, distorted, snowy and lighted with unreal glare that washed out details. Still, it was a miracle.
Radio forced us to imagine what was going on. Television gave us the illusion we were looking through some magic keyhole at places thousands of miles away.
It made the world smaller. All of a sudden distant neighbors were only a keyhole away. It brought French, Germans, and Italians into our living rooms and gave us looks at some of our own countrymen that we found every bit as exotic.
Beyond Uncle Miltie, what sticks in my memory from those early years is the frightening pictures from our own deep South. Pictures of people singing, spraying fire hoses, clubs swinging and dogs attacking.
Most startling of all to me, it brought into our living room sweaty, loud, angry Southern whites, filled with righteousness, ranting about their right to live their own way and the divinely ordained inferiority of the “nigras.” I say “startling” precisely because these people were in some sense just like us and yet terrifyingly alien.
I remember myself as a young boy trying to grapple with this, trying to understand the nature of racism. I finally resolved the problem, at least for myself, by deciding that it was a form of madness. These people were obsessed with skin color. It loomed for them as the most powerful distinction possible. Once skin color came into any picture, any other elements diminished to trivialities.
To them it was skin color that determined who and what a person was. It controlled events. Skin color established roles in life, all the dynamics of interactions, all the end results. Skin color was the most determinant element not only in daily life, but in all of human history.
It was madness.
The O.J. Simpson trial brought all that back to me. The endless talk that surrounded the trial rang bells. Old, painful bells.
Back in those early days of the civil rights movement, when television was as new to the watched as to the watchers, there was a nonchalant candor to the racism that would be hard to find in even a Klu Klux Klan member in these more press-savvy times.
But does not mean that one does not find blatant racism expressed today. The Simpson trial brought it to center stage and it looks the same. It has that same sense of defiance, that same assumption of absolute truth, that sense of persecution. Sadly, today the proponents are overwhelmingly African-Americans.
The form is somewhat different. But the hallmarks are still the same. There is the obsession with skin color. There is the conviction that it is the most powerful distinction in human affairs. There is the compulsion that assures that once skin color has come into any situation, all other elements are diminished to irrelevance.
Clearly, not every African-American is a blatant racist. As with most things, it is the loudmouths who always seem to find the TV cameras. Still, I hear this apparent consensus from African-Americans that white racism is pandemic, controlling and the most decisive element in American life.
Which I beg to consider nonsense.
That is not to say that active white racism does not persist. Anyone who doubts that can check the studies of qualified blacks trying to get a job or a loan. Nor is it to say that in some confrontations racism is not the dominant element.
What I do say and believe is that in most transactions between people, race can be kept a small and marginal element. One of the greatest gaps to comprehension between the races is this simple truth: For a white American, it is completely understandable that while racism is difficult to eradicate in anyone, it is not hard to marginalize. To many African-Americans, if racism is present at all it must, by definition, be controlling.
It is true that white society, while recognizing that it had enjoyed substantial advantages at the expense of its minorities, has tried to repair the damage by throwing money at it. But it has also tried to fix itself. It has become improper to sound like a racist and unacceptable to act like one. The standards of our society changed.
Sadly, the change has brought a guilt driven dispensation. One side of the racial divide is allowed, without challenge, to use language and express a racism that would be rightly condemned if used by the other. Through some odd topsy-turvy logic, even to challenge their right to act like racists is to be condemned as a racist yourself.
This, too, is madness.
I make no case for the innocence of American society with regards discrimination. We have a bad history and bad habits. The only good side is that white Americans have mostly faced up to those facts and inched our way towards correcting them. But I am afraid that until African-Americans recognize that these sins are not exclusively white but merely human and recognize that they have become in some measure what they most hate, the racial divide and the white backlash will both keep growing.
No marriage was ever salvaged where one side maintained its unique innocence while asserting the unique guilt of the other.