America's heart of darkness

Racism remains strong and dangerous in the 1990s even if its outward characteristics have mutated to fit the times
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THE LATEST crime to shock America is the racial murder, in Jasper, Texas, of James Byrd. The three white men accused of the murder, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King, are alleged to have beaten Mr Byrd, tied him to the back of their pick-up truck and dragged him to his death. They are also thought to be fans of a racist thriller, The Turner Diaries, in which black, Jewish and white liberal Americans are assassinated, hung from lamp posts and eventually exterminated.

The Turner Diaries is the story of an "ordinary" white American patriot, Earl Turner, who is forced into an underground resistance army when the US federal government tries to take away the guns of God-fearing white people. The hated "Equality Police" run, as you might expect, by the usual black, Jewish and white liberal suspects, begin attacking the "patriots", provoking a race war in which the United States is eventually ethnically cleansed and White Power lives happily ever after. Along the way the "patriots" blow up the FBI building in Washington in what many Americans now believe became the inspiration for McVeigh's eerily similar bombing in Oklahoma. The book even trumpets its own notoriety, claiming on its cover that the FBI has labelled it "the Bible of the racist right".

But what is especially chilling about the Texas suspects is not whether, like McVeigh, they chose to act out the worst in American racist cult literature. It is that they, again like McVeigh, could be the boys next door, or the racists next door. They "look like normal people, don't they", according to one of the black onlookers at the Jasper County jail where they are now being held - no white hoods, no Ku Klux Klan mumbo jumbo, another example of the banality of evil. They are ordinary in the same way as the white police who beat the black motorist Rodney King were ordinary. That incident led to the worst urban riots in American history in Los Angeles in 1992. They are ordinary like the white man from Independence, Virginia, who two weeks ago pleaded guilty to burning and beheading a black man. And they are ordinary in the way that the burning of black churches in the South has become all too ordinary throughout the 1990s.

The crimes themselves may be extraordinary - big news, and utterly shocking to most Americans who pride themselves that race relations are improving. But the heart of darkness within American society is that racism remains strong and dangerous in the 1990s, even if its outward characteristics have mutated to fit different times. The words of the historian Alexis De Tocqueville, written 160 years ago, still have a peculiar resonance. In America, he wrote, "the white and the black are placed in the situation of two foreign communities. The two races are fastened to each other without intermingling, and they are unable to separate entirely or to combine".

Whatever else has changed, de Tocqueville's observation is still true, though American friends constantly argue with me on this point. They insist that race relations have improved profoundly in the past 30 years. In the 1960s, civil rights marches split southern cities and race riots engulfed northern towns. Blacks in some areas could not vote. They could not eat at the same lunch counters, drink from the same water fountains and had to move to the back of the bus. Not any more.

A black man, General Colin Powell, is now readily accepted by most white Americans as fit to be president. The rise of a new black middle class is one of the great under-reported success stories of the modern United States. So far so good? Well, maybe. What still strikes me during my time in America is how stark the divisions remain between blacks and whites.

In the area of north-west Washington - a mainly black city - in which I lived, we had only one black neighbour, a foreign diplomat. The only black faces I regularly saw locally were the postman and the check-out women at Safeways. Blacks and whites largely had different favourite television programmes, they listened to different music stations and, in the words of one black comedian, "every town has two shopping malls. The one whites go to. And the one whites used to go to".

The black middle class who have made money moved out to the suburbs - but these are often black suburbs, not mixed or white ones. The words of the Kerner Commission on the 1960s riots still seem to me to be true, that the United States risks moving towards two societies "separate and unequal, one black and one white". And even where there is a new equality of wealth, there is still the old separation of race.

All this struck me hardest during the Million Man March. In October 1996 hundreds of thousands of highly motivated young black men came to Washington to call for emergency action to help rebuild black communities. My decent, non-racist white neighbours looked at me as if I was crazy when I told them I was going to the march.

"Won't there be trouble?" one neighbour asked. A white woman friend was told that her child's playgroup 10 miles from the march would be closing. "I'm not a racist," the organiser insisted, "but maybe this is just a day when we need to stay at home." And a white reporter I know who covered the march, left his wallet in the office "just in case".

Now, frankly, I do not think any of these people considered their conduct racist. They were being prudent. After all, in the 1988 election George Bush won partly on an advertisement about a black criminal called Willie Horton freed on parole by his rival presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. When my neighbours thought of a million black men coming to town, despite their basic decency, they feared it was really a million Willie Hortons on the road to rape and pillage, even though the day passed off with minimal crime and I have felt more threatened at the average British football match.

The crime in Jasper, therefore, fits into a new and ugly pattern. On the fringes of American society there are the racist groups who regard The Turner Diaries as a call to arms to rebuild white America.

They are generally lower middle class white males who see the great strides black people have made over the past three decades as a threat. These fringe racists are despised by the majority of Americans, who genuinely want racial harmony. But even within that majority, the stresses of three centuries of racial suspicion are not far beneath the surface. For many decent people, Martin Luther King's dream still does not exist. They cannot see the content of another man's character for worrying about the colour of his skin. And President Clinton, a man who is genuinely moved to build racial harmony, set the right tone at his second inauguration.

The racism of books like The Turner Diaries is part of what he called "America's constant curse". Such hatred fuels "the fanaticism of terror ... these obsessions cripple both those who are hated and, of course, those who hate". It is a perceptive diagnosis. The killing in Jasper was one of the symptoms. But what can be done to cure the disease?