The Triumph Over Anecdote

THE citizen has a civic responsibility to come to grips with what he thinks about civil rights. This week blacks in Boston have called for a boycott of the city's two principal newspapers, the Globe and the Herald, for their coverage of a complicated murder case that led to false accusations against a black man. The Boston case shows how near the surface remains the issue of prejudice in American society. Martin Luther King, Jr. represented the nonviolent course of civil rights activism. During the 1960s another, violent course was offered black Americans. The King direction prevailed.

There is a violence implicit in prejudice that asserts itself in waves. It must continually be resisted. Every American can likely recall early intimations of that violence. For instance, as a boy in Detroit during World War II, I observed a young woman across the then-gravel street return home from the bus stop shaken. A race riot was raging downtown, where she worked. Gunfire. Troops. Blacks thrown over the bridge into the Detroit River. Terror reached our neighborhood more palpably than news from the distant wars in Europe and the Pacific.

Later, in 1967, the city erupted even more violently in an urban riot. This time the gunfire was near my home. The city's sky at night was afire. A curfew and government troops again were imposed to restore order.

But anecdote has its limitations.

The history of the civil rights movement is the victory of principle over anecdote. It would not let America rest in the smoldering resentment of wrongs.

In its peaceful resistance to unjust laws, the rights movement achieved its own victory over recrimination and revenge. It taught forbearance in the face of personal insult, dignity in the midst of beatings, for the sake of a larger cause.

The genius of the civil rights movement was its recognition that positive energy is required to destroy negative conditions.

Great ideas have great energy. Superior ideas destroy inferior ideas.

``I have a dream,'' Dr. King said. His was a dream of brotherhood, of inclusive community, of equal footing for all Americans. This was a superior vision to that of division by race, religion, gender, or class.

The emotional stir of prejudice is with us today, as the Boston case shows. It is the duty of institutions and the role of politics to eliminate these tensions. The status of ``politics,'' so often a term of derision, should be elevated to that of a calling like education and religion. This is not too much to ask. Not until a sense of civic community is established on a higher level will we create the open, inclusive society that makes prejudice impossible.

Prejudice is prejudgment. It substitutes stereotype for the actual identity of individuals. Herein lies its evil. It would deny the distinctness of individuality, which is essential to self and expression.

Prejudice is a moral virus. It feeds on nationalism, paranoia, jealousy, scapegoating, and ideology; it erupts in epidemics of war and repression.

An antidote to prejudice is the acceptance of others in their diversity. The opposite of prejudgment is acceptance of what is. Acceptance is love.

Sexism is the latest frontier of prejudice. I recall that in high school competitions I debated with and against women in equal proportion to young men. From that generation, few women continued in public life. Social expectations, the possibility of living on one salary, were factors. Today the names of young women appear in greater proportion in page-one bylines and as analysts of public issues, as legislative leaders and heads of organizations - but not yet in the measure of their equal ability. There is less excuse today for this shortfall. There is not a female politics and a male politics, a female legislation and a male legislation, a female journalism and a male journalism - no longer even a female combat and a male combat in an age of technological warfare. The waste from not fully recognizing women's intelligence is enormous. Here's occasion for yet another triumph over anecdote.

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