How would Othello make out in Manhattan?

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LAST WEEK, I went for a walk through Washington Square Park with a friend - a black, male friend from Cuba. It was a hot sunny day and the park was crowded. As we entered at the south-west gate, a group of black men who were sitting around on benches began shouting at us. 'Hey brother, fine white woman you've got there.'

'Hey girl, you like black men?'

'Oooh, fine couple.'

We smiled and shrugged and carried on walking. A moment later, a black panhandler approached us. 'You got a dollar?' he asked my friend. 'You got a dollar? You got a dollar for me? C'mon, ma-a-n, you got the girl, so help a guy.'

My friend produced a dollar and we moved on. As we neared the gate on the north-east corner of the park, two black women sitting on the grass glared at us and loudly sucked their teeth. One of them muttered something about 'an ugly white girl', and they both broke out in peals of exaggerated mirth.

Perhaps the oddest thing about these incidents was that they weren't that odd - at least not in the sense of being unusual. British visitors, who are hardly innocents when it comes to the business of fractious race relations, never fail to be taken aback by the intensity with which the issue of race is played out in daily American life. Even in liberal New York, there are few occasions I can think of when being out in public with a man of another race has not elicited at least one comment on the fact of our racial difference.

These comments are rarely threatening. They are usually delivered with a sly, mocking irony rather than outright hostility. But even at their most casual and cajoling they have an overdetermined, nuanced quality that is flummoxing. They seem to offer a glimpse into an infinitely complicated set of assumptions, mythologies and historical references that defy snappy retorts.

For example, the congratulations that were offered to my friend on having a 'fine white woman' were, at one level, an insult to him, suggesting as they did that it was an achievement on his part to have acquired a white lady companion. But there was also something in the delivery that implied a sneer at me. 'Sure,' my friend said, when I was fumbling to describe this. 'They were suggesting a complicity between me and them. There was an idea that because you were a white woman, I must be running some game, pulling some scam on you, and the implicit message was, 'Ha] Way to go brother]' '

It was not untypical that the comments in Washington Square Park came from black people. At this particular moment in American history, black Americans are far more likely than their white compatriots to make honest public statements about race. You could compare this to the fact that in both America and Britain now, it is more common to hear women making public generalisations about men than it is to hear men making

public generalisations about women. In both cases, the expression of the traditionally privileged group has been inhibited by the dictates of political correctness. 'They made a picture called White Men Can't Jump,' Jackie Mason said in his recent Broadway show. 'Everyone enjoyed it. But if they made a picture called Shvartzers Can't Fly?'

Still, as Mason himself proves, it is as foolish to imagine that PC has done away with white racism as it is to imagine that men no longer think nasty things about women. It was always the fatal flaw of the PC movement to imagine that you could change the world by changing the rules for describing it. (In fact, the arch, knowing look that white Americans often adopt when discussing race matters is not unlike the smirky aspect seen on men who would like to make a sexist joke but know that they're 'not allowed to' any more.) America's horrified fascination with the idea of miscegenation has played a central role in the white media's response to the O J Simpson saga. Given the crime that Simpson is accused of committing and how it corresponds with a traditional staple of American racist mythology - the black man's violent, vengeful sexual designs upon the white woman - how could it not? Black commentators like Cornel West, Jesse Jackson and Terry MacMillan have talked about this, but in the white media coverage PC has ensured that the race issue has remained subliminal - hammering at the

margins of the reports but never quite

being acknowledged.

I can quote Michael Kinsley, the white anchor on CNN's Crossfire, referring to OJ as 'a latter-day Othello'; I can cite the photograph of OJ and Nicole Simpson - naked from the shoulders up, smiling broadly, cradling their first child - that People magazine chose to run on their front cover. (Subtext: 'It was never going to work.') I can point out the tabloids' repeated assertion that OJ's 'beautiful white wife' was one of the prizes, along with cars and houses and exotic holidays, that superstardom had earned him. But, significantly, the only explicit reference that I've heard was made by a friend in the privacy of my own kitchen.

It was the other night, while we were sitting watching Diane Sawyer interview OJ's white lover, Paula Barbieri, on Prime Time Live. Suddenly my friend leant across my kitchen table and explained, in the helpful manner of someone giving a foreigner a handy cultural tip, that 'all those guys wanted a white girl in their bed'. This woman is educated, middle- class and would probably regard herself as liberal-minded.

It seemed to sum up the strange, mixed-up state of American attitudes towards race that when I asked her whom she meant by 'all those guys', she began to say 'blacks' and then remembered, just in time, to use the approved PC appellation.

'African Americans,' she said tartly. 'Who did you think I meant?'-