What a black Soviet found out about American blacks
The author works for the Soviet weekly Moscow News. She just completed a journalistic exchange arranged by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Miss Hanga's mother is the daughter of two Americans - a black and a white - who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Her mother married a minister in the Tanzanian government.
``It's not worth going to such a racist city like Boston,'' my friends advised me when I told them I'd be working here.
So in my first days here, this black Russian looked warily at the faces of passers-by. But I didn't notice any discrimination. When my mother called from Moscow, I assured her I hadn't once heard insulting words or seen dirty looks.
I shared these impressions with black Americans.
``The time has passed when discrimination is visible to the naked eye,'' said one black, echoing others. ``Now nobody will openly call himself a racist. But it's still too early to talk about full equality.''
Meeting black people was pleasant. They call each other brother and sister. They treat me with warmth, as a member of the family. I felt relaxed with them, even when we disagreed.
They also were the first to explain to me what they call institutional racism - ``accepted ideas'' that Americans learn in everyday activity, something a foreigner does not understand during a short stay in the United States.
I saw my first evidence of this in Washington at a press conference during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Of all the American journalists there, only a handful were blacks. I know that the American Society of Newspaper Editors encourages hiring minorities - but where were the blacks at the summit?
Soon I discovered that in this country there are black fields of achievement and white ones. Why is it that until 1988 there had never been a black quarterback in the Super Bowl? Finally, I felt discriminated against, myself, when I tried for an hour to catch a cab without success in Boston. They were all, for some reason, heading in the other direction.
I have met blacks who strive to create their own world - a world separate from white people. The source of this ``reverse segregation'' comes from the distant past. For centuries, black Americans have been instilled with the notion that their contribution to the history and culture of America have been minimal. Not many young blacks think they can establish a good career in white society. To this day, some blacks feel uncomfortable with whites and prefer not to associate with them.
But you can't compare the situation today with the way things were. In 1970, there were 1,469 black elected officials in America, according to the Joint Center for Political Study. In 1986, there were 6,424. But blacks probably could have achieved more if more of them had worked together - if there weren't so many differences of opinion in the black community.
Once I got to talking with a well-off black businessman. He said there isn't racism in the US. ``I earn a lot of money, live in a big house, own several cars. My children study at a privileged college with whites,'' he said.
But not all blacks can boast such a life style, I remarked. ``America is a nation of unlimited possibilities,'' he answered. ``You need to work hard and not be lazy.''
Class relations among blacks are not too different from the rest of America. A rich black does not want to understand that it is not just laziness and misfortune that explain the problems of the homeless and unemployed.
What upsets me most is the racism among blacks. An acquaintance of mine, who is called a buppie - a black yuppie - declared proudly that he prefers to date lighter-skinned blacks. He made it clear that he was not talking about beauty. These prejudices go back to when black Americans were convinced that white equaled beautiful and black equaled ugly, that the lighter-skinned slaves who served in the house were better than the darker ones in the fields. I was insulted to hear that echo from the past, though most young blacks I met do not have this attitude of themselves.
The lack of unanimity in the black community is particularly evident with the presidential campaign. Some blacks plan to vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson out of political conviction. Others strongly support Mr. Jackson regardless of his chance of success, saying that blacks need a national leader. A third group opposes choosing a president on the basis of skin color. I understand the reasons behind all of these points of view.
But there is a force that has united blacks for centuries - the church. In black churches I saw that for black Americans it means more than religion. The emotional charge of the ``black church'' makes it different from any other Christian church in the world. Not only do black churches teach, help the poor, and offer advice. In them, people also dance, sing, have fun, cry, and suffer together.
Moreover, the church is the foundation of many black associations and societies of today, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In my country we know about racism between black and white, and I thought this was the only evil preventing black progress. In three months, I discovered that within black organizations is a caste system, based on color, on economic status, on social levels, on education.
When I return home, I will try to explain that the black community is not one-dimensional and is very complicated.
Actually, blacks are together more than they seem. There remains among black Americans a tightly knit bond, a binding brotherhood, a spirit of freedom that has carried them through centuries of slavery and racial prejudice. Otherwise, how would they have a Jesse Jackson running for president, a Samuel Pierce in President Reagan's Cabinet, a black ambassador to South Africa, a John Johnson publishing Ebony magazine?
My one hope for blacks in the US is there be no room for racial prejudice in their country, either outside or inside the black community.