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Stumbling colour-blind into a new world of racial taboos

One thing I learnt during six years living in South Africa was not to be uptight about race. My fear three months ago when I arrived in the United States, where I had heard they were very uptight about it, was that sooner or later I'd put my foot in it terribly. Last week it happened - but not at all the way I had expected.

First let me explain what I mean about South Africa. I would cheerfully go up to, say, Cyril Ramaphosa, the secretary general of the African National Congress, and begin a sentence with, "You know, the problem with you blacks is ... " or, "Really! What's wrong with you people ...?" I would smile, he would laugh. Similarly ,when I met a group of black youths in a township I found that, as an ice-breaker, the following conversational gambit was hard to beat: "What evil anti-white schemes are you Communist terrorists hatching today, then?"

I learnt these social tricks from Mandla Themba, who worked for me. Mandla, who served five years in Robben Island prison for his efforts to undermine apartheid, would frequently preface a political observation with a joking, "You see, what you have to understand is that the problem with us darkies is ... " I would reply in kind, and talk about the problem with "the whiteys". We were revelling in our freedom from the mental shackles "the race thing" imposes, celebrating our refusal to allow social taboos and accidents of birth to place boundaries on our capacity to communicate.

Weaned by my South African experience into what Nelson Mandela would call "colour blindness", I failed abysmally during an interview in the United States to realise that I had stumbled into that most valued of journalistic treasures, a scandal. Christine Todd Whitman, Governor of New Jersey, had said something to me about young black men that was to cause a storm in the United States.

But when I wrote my story for the Independent on Sunday of 9 April I buried the remark, almost as an afterthought, deep down in the text. Four days later a black senator in New Jersey read the article and wrote an open letter to Mrs Whitman which, in turn, sparked an outcry from other black leaders. She publicly apologised, which only encouraged a host of newspapers to carry the story. television stations in Philadelphia and New York picked it up, splashing copies of the article across the television screens of the north-east.

For Mrs Whitman, who is in London this week visiting - among others, Baroness Thatcher - is no ordinary state governor. She is a national celebrity: the pin-up of the Republican Party, the favourite to run for vice-president in the 1996 election.

This was the remark that landed her in hot water: "As regards the unwed mothers, there's a game called `jewels in the crown' that young black males have and it's how many children you can sire outside of wedlock."

Wayne Bryant, the black senator from New Jersey, went ballistic. In his letter to Mrs Whitman he wrote: "A comment of this venomous character would not be unexpected from shock radio disc jockeys or hate-inspired talk-show hosts . . . the Governor's own rhetoric is playing to racial stereotypes, causing further divisions and perpetuating social biases."

I asked Mr Bryant on Monday if he could explain why he had been so upset. First, he said, the Governor's words had been published in a foreign newspaper and she had projected to the world an "absolutely misleading" perception, namely to ignore the fact that the phenomenon of unwed mothers was an epidemic among American teenagers not confined to African Americans. "And that word `siring': it's as if she's talking about animals, people below the human level!"

I put it to him that, as Mrs Whitman had observed in her apology, while the remark could be construed as racist if taken in isolation, its context suggested a person concerned with humanely addressing the problems of America's underprivileged. In contrast to the mainstream Republican view in Congress, she was opposed to a law designed to deprive unwed teenage mothers of social welfare. "You're dealing", her words to me were, "with something much deeper than a mere piece of paper is going to solve." As an example she had cited the "jewels in the crown" game, of whose existence she had heard from black parents at an Aids clinic.

Mr Bryant, a Democrat, did not deny the game existed and conceded grudgingly that Mrs Whitman should be commended for standing up to some of the less compassionate members of her party. But he was still angry several days after the event.

I hesitate to offer any interpretations of this sorry saga, not knowing enough about the history of the sensibilities involved. What I will say with confidence, though, is that if a white parliamentarian in South Africa had made a similar remark in a similar spirit, the world would not have fallen on his shoulders. Which leads me to the thought that the problem of race relations is perhaps a great deal more intractable in the United States than it is in South Africa.