The Peril of Racial Memories

The prize-winning author meditates on The Root’s photo gallery of judgments marred by racial issues. The tension, he contends, lies in the belief among some whites that, once in power, blacks will behave just like, uh, white people.

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It is very dangerous for an administration to follow too closely to the advice, or marching orders, of ideologues on the right or the left. There is also great danger in responding too quickly to what might be no more than willful lying passed off as fact on a network like Fox News, which takes its orders from the top quite seriously. Those orders come down quite simply: Support big business at all costs, and stoke paranoia about what was once called ''creeping socialism.'' When in doubt about ratings, never avoid pouring flammable liquid on any simmering fears connected to ethnic bias against white people.

That is why there is such great importance to what The Root reminded us last week with the photo gallery, ''Cases Where Race Spurred a Rush to Judgment.'' Paying unquestioning attention to our news media is actually quite dangerous because those in charge follow stories closely, but often not very deeply. This misleads the public into an epic problem of memory loss.

The Root's slide show made it obvious that too many of us forget everything as though all is no more than meaningless fluff and melting gossip passed off as deathlessly important news. This is especially irresponsible in the arena of ethnic opinion, where the impatient should trust no one beyond reason. One should always be slow at making up one's mind about racial matters because color taints so much of the national psychology. Quite simply, across all lines of division, Americans tend to assume that some individual or some group is running a disguised power game in which bullying, lying and manipulating are not considered wrong; they are the lowdown and dirty rules of the real game. Consequently, only the naive assume that all is well.

All has never been well, and loons can appear anywhere on the field, claiming to have something invaluable to say about those guilty of doing in an innocent victim. What gave the pictures and captions in the gallery such importance was that they made clear, once again, something too few have been willing to acknowledge: the hustling of racial paranoia is an equal-opportunity profession or justification for irresponsible actions grounded in bigotry.

A well-known scene in the film Crash depicts a hostile black woman in a social service center. The black woman is obnoxious and indifferent to the troubles of an older white client. Why? She appears to be intent on getting some ''payback.'' In other words, now that the white folks are dependent on her judgment, they will be made to suffer the way black people did when rednecks ruled the roost. Look out, whitey: Hattie McDaniel now has a big steel-toed boot aimed at your backside. It may hurt, but this is a version of pain that should be expected.

In a recent New York Daily News editorial, I discussed why so many on the right were anxious to believe the lies about Shirley Sherrod. After watching her full speech, the National Review's Rich Lowry wrote, ''Its politics aside, her full speech is heartfelt and moving. It's the tale of someone overcoming hatred and rancor when she had every reason not to.''

That may mean little in the world of abstract arguments held on campuses, but in the world of employment and all of the human experience influenced by the decisions of others, whenever black people act up in any way whatsoever, there are those whites who will say, ''I told you so,'' but will actually mean, ''You see, they are acting like the worst of us again!''

If black Americans were angels instead of human beings, there would be no trouble. We could then say that the great spirit emerging from Shirley Sherrod every time she appears is but an indication of the morality basic to the black soul. It would be pretty to think so, but the facts are quite different. Yes, there are black people in positions of authority no more ethnically fair than everyone knows of white people -- including whites themselves.

The real trouble is what then-New York Attorney General Robert Abrams said after the big, wasteful hustle of the Tawana Brawley hoax had run its course of ongoing collisions with the truth. Abrams asserted that the next person with a real case might be dismissed as no more than another Tawana.

Brawley and her advisers callously pimped black history as "proof" that the adolescent was kidnapped by white men and molested for days in the woods of upstate New York. After all, ethnic slurs were written on her flesh in feces. Only white men would do such a thing.

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