The back cover of my copy of John Howard Griffin’s 1960 bestseller Black Like Me talks about the author’s odyssey through “a land of lynchings, segregated lunch counters, whites-only rest rooms, and a color line etched in blood . . .” Just changing the color of his skin “was enough to make [Griffin] hated . . . enough to nearly get him killed.”
A generation later, FX’s new six-part reality series Black.White. tries the same experiment. This time, using the miracle of modern makeup, a black family of three and a white family of three trade races.
Let’s say at the outset that you have to be a little suspicious about the show’s reliability. There is no way the show could not purport to find at least some racism and discrimination. What point would there be in blacks and whites switching places except to try to expose bigotry, a la Black Like Me? And who would watch six hours of black people not being discriminated against? Likewise, the editing process is going to magnify whatever discrimination is found. Otherwise there would be, literally, no show. And conflict among the participants must be magnified–even encouraged–too. Who’s going to watch a reasonable black guy and a reasonable white guy agree for an hour every week?
And yet, despite all these built-in pressures, the first episode exposed neither threatened lynchings nor even separate-but-unequal water fountains. The black dad, Brian, does go into a shoe store. For the first time in his life, he appears to be white and so, for the first time in his life, he is not only allowed in the shoe store, he is not only waited on by the clerk, he is not only brought the shoes by the clerk . . . this time, finally, the clerk puts his (that is, Brian’s) feet in the shoes. Before, you see, everything else was the same–but he was just handed the box.
We have so much further to go.
As John McWhorter says in his important new book, Winning the Race, the racism that he and other blacks sometimes still encounter is no more than “an occasional nuisance.”
On the show, this appears to be the position that will be taken by the white dad, Bruno. The New York Times calls Bruno “the show’s most incendiary figure” and “a tedious blowhard”; the Washington Post says he has “grating naivete” and is a “sanctimonious jackass.” Needless to say, I liked him.
I know it’s dangerous to say something like, “You know, what Bruno says is right, even if he does come across as a know-it-all, and Brian should shut up and listen to him as much as Bruno appears to be willing to listen to Brian,” because it may well turn out in episode four that Bruno is really a member of the Ku Klux Klan or something. Still, you know, what Bruno says is right, even if he does come across as a know-it-all, and Brian should shut up and listen to him as much as Bruno appears to be willing to listen to Brian. (I can’t help but note here that Brian at one point says he hopes the white family “is clean”; imagine if Bruno had said such a thing!)
Bruno says of his shopping and other experiences as a newly minted black man that he expected to be treated differently and was surprised that it didn’t happen. Brian has to explain to Bruno that he doesn’t know how to look for the little things that comprise discrimination these days. Later on, Brian explains that, when you’re black, you know when a slight is racist and when it’s not. Ah. He asserts that a salesman is coming over not to help Bruno, but really to “size him up” because he’s black. Uh-huh. The show ends with Bruno saying, “You see what you want to see,” and Brian replying, “And you don’t see what you don’t want to see.” Okay.
Now, if it is true that there are shoe clerks who put white people’s feet into shoes and not black people’s, that is a bad thing. But it is a fair question to ask, What is to be done? I’m not entirely sure, but I would suggest that it does not follow that, for instance, blacks should be given preferences when they apply to medical school. I will go further: The offending shoe clerk should not be put in jail. Indeed, I admit to being queasy about a ruinously expensive lawsuit against the shoe store.
Let’s acknowledge that it’s not just a question of whether Bruno is right that the glass is half full or Brian is right that the glass is half empty. The glass is seven-eighths full. And the glass will never be completely full; in a free society, there will always be some prejudice and some discrimination, and it will run both ways. That said, we should all desire to fill the glass as much of the rest of the way as possible. I’m quite prepared to believe that the small slights are there, and that over time they can wear you down.
But how do we fill it the last bit? As indicated, I’m skeptical that we need more laws or lawsuits. Rather, we have to ask ourselves, Why is it that some people still harbor prejudice and even engage in discrimination, even though there are a plethora of anti-discrimination laws, and even though racism is about as socially unacceptable and vilified in the popular culture as one can imagine?
Larry E. Davis, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems, likes the show and says that we have to “keep hammering away, hammering away, hammering away at the problem.” I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure that benign neglect is the better approach.
Old-fashioned bigotry is dying–literally. Surveys indicate that it is mostly in the older cohorts that such prejudice is found. This is reflected in the fact that the teenagers in Black.White.–of both races–are less afflicted with racial angst than their parents. Nick–the black teenager–says flat out that his generation experiences and feels less discrimination.
To the extent that prejudice remains, it is today much less a cause of racial socioeconomic disparities than an effect. That is, young white people today are not sat down by their parents and told, “Look, son/daughter, you need to know that black people are dangerous, promiscuous, lazy, and stupid.” Rather, to the extent that kids today develop prejudices, it is more likely based on their own experiences and observations–which include the unpleasant but undeniable facts that a disproportionate number of blacks commit crimes, have children out of wedlock, and do poorly in school. It is unfortunate and wrong that whites (and Latinos and Asians, too, by the way) should construct stereotypes based on these disproportions rather than continuing to judge all people as individuals, but it happens.
And, realistically, the way for it to stop happening is for those disproportions to end. And for that to happen, the black community has to pressure its own to clean up their acts. Blacks will not want to listen to Bruno. Brian has to speak up, as Bill Cosby, John McWhorter, and Shelby Steele among others, have. Sorry if saying so makes me a sanctimonious jackass.
–Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va.