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The color line: The third rail of American culture


Someone recently described a workshop where a mixed black and white audience was asked the question: “Who here would rather be treated as an African-American than as a white in U.S. society?”

No hands went up.

Point made. Or is it?

Evidence abounds that the color line has been crossed time and again in high-profile circumstances. African-Americans -- basketball great Michael Jordan, high-powered attorney Vernon Jordan, National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell -- have been embraced as sports heroes and political figures, or have been given enormous responsibilities in the affairs of state and the conduct of war. Decades after his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life is celebrated in a federal holiday (this year on Jan. 21). Many Americans get a day off.

Fr. Warren J. Savage sees little consolation for African-Americans in such high-profile success. Says Savage, National Black Catholic Evangelization Forum president, “I see another side of racism, a darker side of racism I don’t think we are addressing -- the whole notion of classism,” he said. “We now have in our culture distinctive classes of people, either very poor or very rich,” and those on either end of that spectrum, he said, can be black, white, brown, “any color.”

Savage has tough questions for whites and even tougher ones for African-Americans. He asks the latter: “Is what you’re aspiring to beneficial to all African-Americans or to just yourself?” With this “outgrowth of racism,” he said, comes the specter of victims “now becoming the oppressors within their own group.”

The farther one gets from the spotlight of celebrity, as the age of slavery and the 1960s Civil Rights era recede into history, the more difficult it is to assess where racism is and to figure the way out.

There is no argument in mainstream circles: Racism exists. A television commentator, in an offhand remark, recently referred to racism as the “third rail” in American culture. That is, within its own limits, an apt analogy.

If racism today usually doesn’t have the kind of high profile that it did during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, like the benign-looking third rail, the one that carries the current along the electric tracks, racist outbreaks can still deliver deadly shocks to the body politic.

Which side of the color line one is on determines the severity of the shock from racial profiling, from the inordinate number of black men in prison, from the unconscionable numbers of blacks in poverty, illiteracy, substandard housing and joblessness.

Some shocks are openly vicious: the gruesome reality of a black man dragged to his death chained to the back of a pickup truck, the rioting and suppression in Cincinnati after a black man was shot and killed by a white policeman, the beating of a Rodney King.

Most white Americans remain numb to how deeply attitudes of white supremacy have taken hold in the culture, contends Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams of Detroit in the accompanying story. In his words, it’s a long road to racial sobriety -- by which he means working to overcome racist attitudes and behavior.

Not long ago, as Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown paced in front of the audience at a Call to Action meeting in Chicago, the hymn “Wade in the Water” played in the background:

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water,
God’s gonna’ trouble the water

Said Brown, who teaches Black American Studies at Southern Illinois University, “When my study of history caught up with my study of life, I realized that I lived in two cultures. Much like [the black writer W.E.B.] Du Bois, who in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk spoke of ‘two cultures separated by a veil of color.’ ” The color line, said Brown, if not as sharply defined, still separates two cultures, and the separation extends into and throughout the church.

Brown often travels around the country doing workshops for largely white audiences. He asks those congregations if they have the black Catholic hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me.

And he often hears the response, “Oh, no. We don’t have any black members.”

He pauses for effect. “And you never will.”

Unless there’s the courage to wade in the water.

Tom Roberts is NCR editor.

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002