BLACK AND WHITE IN AMERICA
In South Africa John Carlin reported on apartheid. Now in the US, he describes racial tensions that are just as intense
Sunday 28 May 1995
If Mr Dinkins felt embarrassed, he need not have done. Through his dress he was expressing a noble sentiment: that black Americans retained strong ties of affection to the continent from which their ancestors were brutally dragged. During his visit, Mr Dinkins repeatedly professed a deep cultural affinity with Africa. His views, like his dinner attire, were warmly appreciated by his hosts.
But the limits of this American-African affinity were cruelly exposed that very night when a terrified sheep was paraded before the guests and they were informed that it would be dragged out into the garden and ritually slaughtered in their honour. Their faces betrayed the instinctive reaction of squeamish urban Americans of whatever colour - pure horror.
The worlds of black and white in South Africa and in the United States of America can be very different, but the contrasts are rarely so simple as those seen at the Dinkins dinner. The experience of moving from the former world to the latter, from Johannesburg to Washington, as I have done recently, can be amusing and bewildering, but also, and more often, it is appalling. While the legacy of apartheid is crumbling in South Africa, in America the racial barriers appear, if anything, to be growing higher and stronger.
WHEN I arrived in South Africa in January 1989 for what would turn out to be a six-year posting, my preconception, as a white European, was that I would find it virtually impossible to relate to black South Africans. On the one hand, the culture was alien to me. On the other, until that point in my life my contact with black people had been next to minimal. I might make some working acquaintances, I thought, but I would not make any friends.
For entirely different reasons I wonder now, barely five months into my stay in Washington, whether I will ever be able to forge any enduring bonds with black Americans. This is odd, for on the surface I have a great deal more in common with black Americans than with black South Africans. We speak the same language, for one. Culturally we have our differences but I believe I can safely say that the average black American has a world view rather closer to mine than to that of his distant cousin in Zululand. Yet, for all that, first impressions suggest that I will struggle to achieve the ease of communication with black Americans that I came to enjoy with numerous black South Africans.
One of my very best South African friends was a Zulu man who wore a little pouch around his neck with a concoction made of snake spit to ward off wrongdoers and evil spirits. English was his second language, yet there are few people in the world in whose company I feel more comfortable. What I learnt in South Africa, where blacks only obtained the vote in the fifth year of my stay, was to lose my uptightness about race. In America, the land of the free, I fear I may be rediscovering it.
What I sense here is a cold war between blacks and whites, an invisible curtain of distrust that divides the two races. Most obvious is a sort of TV apartheid, a process of cultural selection reflected in the ratings: none of the top ten programmes watched by white audiences are on the list of the black top ten. By contrast in South Africa, even in the days when the apartheid laws were still in place, the Cosby Show was as popular among black audiences as among white. (In an immortal line, a teenage Afrikaner girl said to a TV reporter some years back, "I love the Cosby Show, I just wish there weren't so many kaffirs in it.")
And the sort of television enjoyed by black Americans is very different. The white establishment may be fastidious about the racial niceties in its own programmes, but it does not complain when blacks use the media to indulge anti-white sentiments. Flip through the channels any night of the week and you will come across a black stand-up comic before an all-black audience delivering himself not so much of jokes as tirades against white people. It's always "white folks" are like this, or "white folks" do that, or "man, I don't understand them white folks, but the other day ..." The other characteristic of these shows is a degree of profanity and misogyny (women are often "hoes", meaning whores) unthinkable on mainstream white television.
In America, race equals anxiety. In everyday conversation when the subject comes up, even if I find myself in all-white company, I can detect a general tightening of the facial muscles. Utter the wrong word, express a thought that deviates from the current orthodoxies and you feel as if something terrible is going to happen. Venturing the thought that OJ Simpson might be guilty can brand you a racist in certain quarters and God forbid that you should ever blurt out the word "nigger", even in the most transparently jocular vein. It would be the social equivalent of pressing the nuclear button.
"The danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of Americans," wrote de Tocqueville more than 150 years ago. Norman Mailer said in a television interview on Friday that race was the country's most pressing problem.
In South Africa, where the sense today is of a body politic that is healing, I found time and again that a signalled violation of the taboos would help break the ice of a first encounter or reinforce an existing bond of trust. I would meet a group of activist youths in Soweto and for openers I would throw at them the "communist terrorist" tag so customary in the language of their white oppressors. They would laugh, in part delighting, I think, in the understanding that we had established a basis for frank communication. With people I knew well, like Patrick "Terror" Lekota, the ANC premier of the Orange Free State, I - and indeed he - would cheerfully use the dreaded "K-word", kaffir, as an expression of mutual trust built on a disdain for those who used the word with racist intent.
I do not expect to be employing these social gambits in America any time soon. I was having lunch last week with a black man who said he had been working for the same Washington company for 20 years yet during this time he had not made one white friend. It wasn't that his white colleagues were overtly racist, he explained. Nor did he feel that the colour of his skin had prevented his rise up the company ladder. But every day of his working life there had been a subtle tension in the air which precluded any possibility of intimacy with his white fellow employees.
Outside work, the world he inhabited was almost exclusively black. What he found whenever he found himself with a group of black friends, he said, was that sooner or later there would be an explosion of shared rage. Sooner or later in the conversation someone would come up with an example of some slight that had been committed on a black person at work, in a restaurant, at a department store and that would always be the cue for a chorus of righteous indignation.
"Oh my God," I hear people say, "do you realise that after all this time she is the first black woman to be appointed to a job of that seniority?" or "the other day I was talking to my cousin and and he was telling me how he was at this store and the security people trailed him everywhere he went just because he was black and so they thought he must be planning to steal something".
More commonly, I have heard a number of times from black people about their experiences in meetings at work where they can't quite put their finger on it but they have an unmistakeable sense that they are being undervalued or patronised by their white colleagues. Sometimes, one black woman told me, you discover after the fact that the slight so keenly felt had actually been imagined, the result of an honest misunderstanding.
But the important thing in all such instances is the predisposition to feel offence. Just beneath the surface, what I have found among black Americans is a simmering anger, more controlled in some than others but ever ready to spill over the rim.
IT IS this anger, I believe, that sets apart black Americans and black South Africans. Of course blacks in South Africa, in the brave new world ushered in by Mr Mandela, still experience the daily drip-drip of racial slurs from their long-time tormentors. "They're so bloody lazy!" or "God, why can't they do things right?" remain the conversational staples of many white "madams" in Johannesburg's affluent suburbs. The difference lies in the response.
Black South Africans are not consumed by the question of race every day of their lives as black Americans seem to be. There is far less hatred. Evidence of this was provided by last year's South African election results where the ANC, whose bedrock philosophy is "non-racialism", cleaned up the overwhelming majority of the black vote - by which I mean about 90 per cent. By contrast the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), whose most familiar slogan was "one settler one bullet", did not make it to 2 per cent. I would guess that among black Americans a party with attitudes similar to the PAC would do rather better.
Why the differences? A critical one is that black South Africans are in the majority in their country. In fact, the racial breakdowns in both countries are virtual mirror images of each other. In America 12.5 per cent of the population is black, 74.2 per cent are white. In South Africa, if you include the apartheid-defined "coloured" population in the black side of the equation, it's about 12.5 per cent white, 74.2 per cent black.
Being in the majority gave black South Africans, even in the darkest days, an unshakeable confidence that in time they would re-inherit the earth of their ancestors. During the South African elections last year I met a black photographer from England who was honest enough both to marvel at the superhuman tolerance blacks showed towards whites and, in an eerie moment of candour, to confess that as a member of a racial minority he felt a sneaking empathy with the urge conservative Afrikaners had to battle in defence of their culture.
It may be that things will change in South Africa, that in time the wondrous evolution in race relations under President Mandela will dissolve in anti- white rancour - even if the evidence presented at the opening of the rugby World Cup in Cape Town on Thursday, of white faces daubed with the new rainbow flag and black children in the townships cheering on the the all- white Springboks, suggest otherwise. In America what you have is a black minority which has already lived the worst nightmares of the white minority in South Africa: the slavery; the lynchings, the institutionalised discrimination and the quiet racism that endures today.
This last is difficult for me, as a white man, to describe but one need look no further than the opinion polls to see that it exists. What the polls show is that white America's two biggest concerns are a moral decline in the nation's social fabric and what they perceive (wrongly, as the figures of the past three years show) as a relentless increase in crime. Decoded, these findings expose a fear of and distaste for blacks. Proportionately far more blacks are engaged in crime than whites and far more children are born out of wedlock to black mothers. It is not surprising that black Americans should be touchy, that they should seek refuge in the sometimes clumsy posturings of Afro-centricity. Mr Dinkins' exotic dress is just one example, and the zeal for acceptance in Africa has driven blacks at times into the arms of dictators with habits far worse than any whites-only regime.
Last week I was talking to a West African friend who moved to the United States eight years ago to flee repression in his own country. "Racism is fundamental to American life," my friend said. "You're not going to change that any time soon. But the approach so many of these black political leaders take, which so many black Americans embrace, is that your fate depends on white people changing their attitudes towards you. This is self-defeating and crazy. It's also the easiest, weakest response. You've got to seize control of your own lives. What you need over a period of time is to campaign against violence among young people in your communities, build up education. The trouble with Americans, all of them, is that they believe in quick fixes for everything. They are frustrated that 30 years have passed since the Civil Rights Act and problems still remain!" Another piece of advice my friend dispensed to black Americans was that, admirable as he found it that they should strive to become acquainted with their heritage, they should never lose sight of the fact that they are Americans first, "something they find out each time they come to Africa".
Middle-class black Americans, after all, have made significant leaps forward since the time of Martin Luther King: for example, 26 black mayors have been elected in 26 major cities since 1973, including Seattle where only 10 per cent of the population is black. And if Colin Powell were to campaign next year he would probably become the first black president of the United States. Blacks have also made an immense contribution in forging America's young culture. For all the indignities and cruelties that history has inflicted, there is a great deal for blacks to celebrate and be proud of.
Such happy thoughts are, perhaps, easy for me to express, having only a passing sense of the complex accumulation of historical baggage black Americans are condemned to bear every day. If the load could be lightened a little, some improvements might swiftly be registered, not least in matters of health.
The black man I had lunch with last week, the one who had made no white friends at work, observed in a rather woebegone way that a study on heart disease had shown that black Americans are more prone to high blood pressure than white Americans. Which prompts me to remember the words of a black caller to Johannesburg's Radio 702 six months before last year's election. A succession of desperate white callers earlier on in the programme had been ventilating their fears of political change. The black caller - from the sound of his voice you could tell he was an elderly man wearing a big smile on his face - came on and said: "To my fellow white South Africans I have one simple thing to say: Relax, guys. Relax. RELAAAAAX." In South Africa it's already happening. In America it might be a start.
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