Most of us white folk go through life comfortably without being conscious of
the innumerable ways in which we are automatically privileged by the luck of
our racial draw. This may not make us "racists" -- but it makes us,
unwittingly, beneficiaries of racism.
Bernice Albertine King writes of her father's magnificent "I Have a Dream"
speech that its "effect was to comfort the disturbed, but not without disturbing
It's primarily to "disturb the comfortable" that I've assembled in this book a
progression of quotes that convey -- in the voices of both blacks and whites --
the history, the perceptions, the psychic scars, and the despair, that underlie
the racial breach in the United States today. Out of the pain, finally, comes the
hope for healing, which seems the only option if the country is to progress, let
Why the focus on white/black racism?
Most manifestations of prejudice and racism affect not only African-Americans
but Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and other "people of color."
These minorities, too, experience discrimination in housing, education, and
employment. They, too, are subjected daily to humiliation or worse.
Still, by the time you've finished this book, I hope you will understand why:
Whose voices do we hear?
- Christopher Edley, Jr., says that: "The black-white tension is the
heart, the principal generator of the minority-rights controversy in
national policy argument and in most areas of the country."
- Patricia Williams wonders: "How can it be that so many well-meaning
white people have never thought about race when so few blacks pass a
single day without being reminded of it?"
- Andrew Young needs to point out that: "Most White Americans don't
even know the history of slavery and the long continuing struggle of
blacks to overcome it."
- Martin Luther King, Jr., tells how: "Instinctively we struck out for
dignity first because personal degradation as an inferior human being
was even more keenly felt than material privation."
- Shirley Chisholm cries out in frustration: "My God, what do we
want? What does any human being want?"
You will find here the words of writers and speakers ranging from apologists
for slavery in the mid-1800s to former slaves like Frederick Douglass and
Booker T. Washington at the end of the century; from W.E.B. Du Bois in the
early 1900s to President Clinton and Oprah Winfrey as we near the
Listen to firebrands like Stokeley Carmichael and Malcolm X alongside the
bitter but ultimately hopeful Arthur Ashe and the soft-spoken Muhammad Ali.
Discover, as I did, the brilliance of the written words of Martin Luther King,
Jr.; the explosive eloquence of Lerone Bennett, Jr., and Randall Robinson; the
humor of Langston Hughes and the Delany sisters; the up-front denunciations
of racism by Colin Powell; the frankness of Harlon L. Dalton and Clarence
Page; the revelations by Lillian Smith and Sarah Patton Boyle of what it meant
to grow up white in the South.
Familiar names like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, Harry Belafonte and
Sammy Davis, Jr., mingle with those of the man and woman in the street
whose wise insights are captured in interviews by Studs Terkel -- plus those of
a lot of other "ordinary" people and lesser-known writers.
The prose of such current intellectual activists as Cornel West, Henry Louis
Gates, Jr., and Orlando Patterson appears side by side with that of Gordon
Allport in the seminal The Nature of Prejudice and Gunnar Myrdal in his
classic, The American Dilemma.
You will find the views of pessimists and optimists, with their expressions of
despair and of hope; of radicals and conservatives, with their conflicting
approaches on integration versus separation or affirmative action versus so-
called "preferences" -- with both blacks and whites on opposite sides of each
There are some topics I have avoided almost entirely because they are so
historically divisive that they would sidetrack the central ideas in this book, as
they have in life -- the matter of intermarriage, for example, on which there
are as strong differences of opinion in the black as in the white "community"
-- ranging from those who see "assimilation" as a utopian ideal to those who
perceive it as genocide.
Where do the quotes come from?
As Andrew Hacker points out, "No one could possibly tally all the books and
articles that have been written about race in America," and the sheer volume
of available material is indeed overwhelming. So I drew the line when I had
worked my way through a more-or-less random, but representative, number of
books that include biographies and autobiographies,collections of essays by
individual writers, anthologies, sociological studies, and histories.
In addition, many of the quotes come from the newspaper I read every
morning -- there's hardly a day without at least one article relating to race.
Others are from magazines, like Newsweek and Ebony. Then there's the
Internet, from which I have downloaded all of the press releases from the
White House on the President's Race Initiative. On the Web I also found some
fascinating material ranging from a book published by a former slave to a
southern separatist movement of today.
All in all, I hope my research into the many facets of racism will provide food
for thought for you as an individual, and encourage you to explore in more
detail the writings of some of the authors I have quoted. Moreover, the book
can serve both as a starting point for group discussions and as an educational
resource for schools, libraries, and outreach programs.
Can anything be done?
We may not be able to solve the deeply entrenched social and economic
problems that beset so many Americans, but each of us can "be more than
passively good-hearted," as Langston Hughes suggests, "try equality on for
size," as Harlon Dalton proposes, and become "antiracist," as Clarence Page
At the very least -- by enlarging what Dr. King called our "capacity to
empathize," and practicing "the good old Golden Rule," as Orlando Patterson
recommends -- perhaps each of us can make a difference.