Questioning Spike Lee

FILMMAKER Spike Lee was quoted recently in this paper as saying, ``When it comes down to it, black people did not invent racism. Black people, for the most part, are recipients of it. I think if racism is going to end in America, a choice has to be made by white Americans if they want to end it.'' He also expressed hope that his films would stimulate a dialogue on racism. As a white American who lives two blocks from the village of Harlem, whose white wife teaches public school in Harlem, and who makes his living by studying, writing about, and teaching ethics, I have much sympathy for Mr. Lee's work. I haven't seen his new movie, ``Do the Right Thing,'' but I've seen and admired ``School Daze'' and his earlier ``She's Gotta Have It.'' Lee's realism is commendable both for its own sake and for its sheer audacity.

I do not quite understand Lee's remark, however. He may be read as trying to provide us with information which we previously did not have. But that is puzzling because nobody thinks blacks invented racism anyway. On the other hand, it gives one a jolt to think that Lee may be saying that the ancestral inventors of a thing are by that very fact its chief promoters. Those who invented the atom bomb lived to denounce the very thing that they had brought into existence. If a saint's great-grandfather was a Nazi, it does not follow that the saint is responsible for his grandfather's sins. Generations are more variegated and less rigid than that.

Lee says that white people's idea of black ghettos is one in which there is no humor but plenty of ``rapists, crack addicts, drug dealers, pregnant teen-age mothers throwing their babies out of windows.'' He adds: ``on any income level ... people still are going to have dignity.'' The latter is true enough; my wife and I bear witness to it daily. But what is difficult to understand is why Lee - a realist who wants to ``raise people's consciousness'' - attributes the negative picture of the black ghetto to the realm of the white's ``idea'' of it.

My wife has to keep her first-grade students indoors for six-and-a-half hours a day straight due to vials of crack that litter the outdoor playground. Most of the children come from broken homes; some of the parents and even grandparents deal drugs. At share time, if one child volunteers a tragic story, all become anxious to share their own: uncles they have seen shot in the head, bullets that have flown through windows, fights that have ended in stabbings. These problems are as real, and as serious, as the racism Lee seems to believe white America neglects to attribute to itself.

But the latter is puzzling, too. In my community, I have had bottles thrown at me without any provocation by members of another race (not black), and have been told on the street that ``white ain't always right'' by blacks who were complete strangers. My reaction was sheer mystification. I had, as a native of southern California suburbs, always assumed that racism, where it existed at all, was attributable to whites. But as a rather reserved, rather scholarly fellow, I have several times found myself in the midst of an ``incident'' in which the sense of unreality about what was happening to me was even more acute than the most realistic moment in any of Lee's films.

Like Lee, I certainly don't know what the answer(s) to racism is (are). But perhaps unlike Lee, I am of the opinion that inflicting upon anyone, of whatever color, and at any time, any verbal or other behavior that can be attributable to color is undeserved and wrong. Hence I feel Lee's remarks are inappropriate. While they are born of passion and of a vision that is commendable, the reversalism in their tone is damaging.

We must, once and for all, call a truce. We must all cease to blame the past - it is gone. We have the opportunity to start afresh. If we are not stubborn about insisting that history corrects itself through its direct, biological descendants, we will take advantage of the option of drawing a new starting line.

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