In Search of Honesty on Race

OLD Man Jolly was a gruff cuss of a sportswriter, but he treated me fine and sometimes even smiled, which was important for an aspiring young black journalist taking his first unsure steps in the stubbornly white sports department of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

All you know of people in settings like that is what they say and do. You can only guess about what they think, unless they slip.

Old Man Jolly slipped one day, and I felt the betrayal for the first time. It's what many Rutgers students say they felt after learning that university president Francis Lawrence referred to some black students as ''a disadvantaged population that doesn't have that genetic hereditary background'' to perform on standardized tests.

Jolly's was a cruder eruption. Pressured once too often to meet a deadline one tired night, he snapped at the offending editor, ''What do you think I am, a nigger or something?''

What do you do when a man's tongue betrays his heart that way? I wanted to strike back but words escaped me, as they often have in the many times it's happened since.

And so I moved this white person from the stack of ''undecideds'' in my brain over to the mountain of ''proven prejudiced.''

This revelation was, to me, little more than validation of a fear that cuts like a fault line under the foundation of every relationship I have ever had with a white person: Suspect until proven guilty.

Such is the state of race relations from my half of the divide. Such is the unstable earth upon which I have built some of the most meaningful and enduring relationships of my life. With white people.

That's not so much a contradiction as it is an accommodation of reality.

Only when honesty has crushed the fragile facade of our superficial race relations do we stand the greatest chance of constructing something that will last. On the racial issue, more than anywhere else, we are willing to stop our exploration at the surface rather than face the strain and pain of probing deeper. Here, more than anywhere else, there is a need for courage, to admit that we are all racism's children, and diligence, to keep struggling to rise above that inheritance.

How different might the discourse be if, rather than counting hires or disowning the racist bones in their bodies, people just leveled with one another? Admitted to the distrust. Admitted to the prejudices. Admitted that they're still not sure about this hereditary background thing, and then committed themselves to the search for better understanding.

It may not be the final answer, but it's better than lies, better than silence.

Thirteen years after Jolly flashed his ignorance I sat with a friend and mentor who, like Francis Lawrence, had flown the diversity flag and hired and promoted people like me.

Like Lawrence, he is white. Like Lawrence's, his words hurt. He said he still struggles to see black people as equal to white people.

The fault shuddered. The facade cracked.

But the relationship endures, because, unlike Lawrence or Jolly, this wasn't a slip that he would try to disavow or deny or regret. It was what he thought, and it didn't square with what he did or what he believed, and he was determined to overcome it.

As with Jolly, as with so many people since, I shuffled this white person in my mind's file from ''undecided'' to ''proven prejudiced,'' and then on to another place, a place where I store dreams that my children will one day have a better inheritance. This file is still very thin. I'll call it, Working on a Cure.

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