'Circle of Friends' Airs Black Perspectives

It has been 25 years since David Tyson and his family moved into their comfortable white brick house at the end of a quiet road. Yet they still remember the comments a banker made when Mr. Tyson, a mechanical engineer, applied for a loan to build the split-level home. "That house costs more than my house," the banker told him. "You can't afford that."

Tyson, who is black, says, "We all know the translation of the language there."

After a lifetime of racially-based indignities like this - the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination that many blacks endure - Tyson keeps coming back to one central question: What can blacks do to help whites overcome long-held stereotypes and misperceptions?

Last fall he devised one modest answer: a half-hour television talk show designed to improve communication and understanding between the races.

Called "Circle of Friends," the locally originated program features a roundtable of four blacks discussing social and political issues. Since last November, when the show began, topics have included the Million Man March, black conservatism, the O.J. Simpson trial, and black history. Broadcast four times a week, it reaches 100,000 cable subscribers in 31 communities in southern New Hampshire.

"In our small way we're trying to create an environment where white people can look in and see and hear what we're concerned about and what our opinions are," Tyson explains. "We can get their opinions through their papers and their television, but they don't really get our opinions. The O.J. trial made it so blatantly clear that no matter how much we pretend, there is no communication. The average white person hasn't the foggiest notion what goes through my head."

On a sunny July Tuesday, what is uppermost in Tyson's mind is a morning-long rehearsal for the next two programs, which will be taped several days later.

Seated in the living room of the house Tyson was told he couldn't afford - an airy room filled with family photos - he and his three guests, chosen from a 40-member interracial group called the Chichester Connection, consider their first topic: what the 20th century has meant to blacks. Tyson's wife of 43 years, Blanche, who is white, also joins the conversation.

"We're going to look at where is the low point for blacks in this century, and where is the peak," Tyson explains.

"What peak?" quips Sandra Hicks, a former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a longtime community volunteer.

They begin by talking about the Supreme Court's 1896 "separate but equal" decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. "That set the stage for the 20th century by originating apartheid," says Bernard Streets, a teaching consultant and lecturer on racism at schools and colleges.

After considering the role of blacks during and after both world wars, they move on to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which gave blacks equal access to education.

But it is the civil rights legislation of 1964 that commands the most attention. Calling this the "pinnacle" for blacks, Tyson says, "We have more black youths going to college, more blacks voting, and more black men and women in the corporate world." Now, he adds, "We have to look at how do we secure the advances that were made on that bill, and how do we go further?"

He continues, "Things aren't changing as much as we think they're changing. Every time we think we're taking two steps forward, we find we're ending up with one step backward. If blacks tend to be suspicious and irritable, it is entirely understandable. Blacks have to live in two worlds. We have to pretend we believe what the white cultural environment tells us and at the same time understand what reality is."

The wide-ranging discussion also touches on welfare reform, which Ms. Hicks calls a "blame the victim" approach, and the burning of black churches.

"A lot of support for the rebuilding of black churches has come from white people," says the fourth panelist, Carol Cochrane, a probation and parole officer.

Adds Mr. Streets, "Maybe this can be a catalyst for human beings, whatever their race, to come together. Maybe out of something terrible, something good will happen."

When the focus turns to the current backlash against affirmative action, Streets tells the group, "I was in the corporate world for 35 years. So many people were getting promotions through the old-boy network. I almost laugh about these objections to affirmative action, when people say, 'Oh, it should be about merit.' Meritocracy has not been the way it's typically done."

Later, on the subject of Black History Month, Tyson says, "It's a palliative. It makes everybody feel good, but it doesn't accomplish anything." Far more essential, he says, is the need to incorporate black history into regular history courses. "The most delicate part of school is history, because history is always about who won."

Central to every discussion of current issues on the program are participants' real-life experiences, which Tyson calls "the essence of the show."

Offering one such experience, Streets tells of growing up in Logansport, Ind., when blacks were not welcome on the high school swim team. "They allowed colored people to go in the pool on Monday," he says. "Then they would drain the pool Monday night."

Years later, when Streets' daughter was in elementary school, he says, she wrote an essay as a homework assignment. But after the teacher read it, she told the little girl, who was the only non-white student in the class, "Honey, this is too good. You couldn't have written it." His daughter offered to write another essay on a different subject in the teacher's presence. "When the teacher read it, she cried," Streets says. "Was this an out-and-out act of racism?" he asks. "No. It was subtle. The teacher just couldn't believe she could do so well."

Even remarks that whites think of as compliments can sometimes be perceived by blacks as insensitive. "I have a co-worker I've been able to establish rapport with," Ms. Cochrane says. "One day she told me, 'I don't see you as black anymore.' She thought that was a good thing. But it's just one more example of the invisibility of blacks."

Tyson calls "Circle of Friends" a "participation program," as opposed to a traditional interview format. During this morning's three-hour rehearsal, as on the TV show itself, conversation is lively but never inflammatory. "We don't want to sound like 'The McLaughlin Group,'" he says. He expects future topics to include South Africa and Nelson Mandela's visit to Britain, the economy, and the elections.

Response from viewers has been gratifying, Tyson says. "People stop me in the supermarket and on the street and say, 'I saw your program and liked it.' That's how you know that you're actually making contact. They can see things they hadn't seen before. It brings a certain amount of clarity to their vision."

Adds Hicks, "In a place like New Hampshire, it's important to broaden horizons. Some people are born here and will die here."

One viewer, Maurice Dupuis, a teacher in Concord, N.H., says, "I enjoy it because I don't know the black point of view on many of the social issues they discuss. It's very enlightening."

Yet whites are not the only beneficiaries. The program also serves as "an electronic meeting place for blacks," says Thomas O'Rourke, director of government and public affairs at Continental Cablevision in Manchester, N.H., which produces the show. He says the station receives letters from black residents who have recently moved to the state, unaware until they arrived of how small the minority population is. The state counts only 7,000 blacks among 1.1 million whites.

"They say they're thrilled to come across this program because it gives them a cultural link and lets them know that there are others out there who may be feeling or experiencing the same things," Mr. O'Rourke says.

Even with innovative efforts like this television program, no one in the roundtable pretends that increasing communication and understanding between the races will be easy. "I'm a firm believer that racism will never go away, no matter how old I am or where I live," Cochrane says.

Adds Streets, "There's fear driving a lot of things. There are many basically fine, wonderful people who are scared to death at the browning of America."

Overcoming that fear, he says, requires broader understanding between the races. "You can pass legislation until the cows come home, but until people can internalize the principle of the oneness of humankind - that the external, the color, is inconsequential - and until white people can come to grips with their fear, you're not going to have any progress. Waiting for Uncle Sam to fix it is not where the solution lies."

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