This article was originally published by Salon on December 15, 1997.
Try this exercise: Imagine that a white player in the National Basketball Association had first tried to strangle his black coach and then threatened to kill him in front of the whole team. Suppose that this white player had previously threatened a teammate with a gun and a two-by-four. Suppose the NBA, responding to this unprofessional, even criminal conduct, had suspended the white player for a year and that his team had terminated his contract. How many public figures do you think would step forward to defend the culprit? How many mayors of major cities would speak out in his behalf, as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown did in the Latrell Sprewell case, even suggesting that “Maybe the coach deserved to be choked”? How many famous white lawyers would “join his team” and claim, as Johnnie Cochran did, that there had been a “rush to judgment” and a “disparity in treatment,” implying that the white player was being punished only because his victim was black?
Here’s another exercise. Imagine that a white football star with a history of brutality and jealous rages toward his black wife is suspected in the savage murder of her and a friend. Suppose he attempts to flee, with a passport and money in his possession, toward the Mexican border. Suppose his blood is found all over the crime scene, and the blood of his dead wife on his clothes, his car and at his home. Suppose that a 911 recording of an earlier incident with her screaming that he was going to kill her is played in court and to the whole country. What are the chances that a white jury would acquit him in less than an hour? Or that the white population would cheer such a verdict, rather than hang its head in shame?
Or, imagine that a convicted felon and parole violator named Rodney King had been white. He takes the law on a high-speed chase, throwing cops off his back when he’s finally stopped and otherwise physically resisting arrest. How much attention would have been paid to the fact that the police got overly rough with him? Would the president of the United States have called for the cops to be tried and then tried again, until they were sent to jail? Would a white Rodney King have been given $3 million in compensation by a contrite Los Angeles and made a poster boy for police brutality and racial injustice by the nation as a whole?
These exercises show what is missing from the current dialogue on race: A candid discussion, first of the way white America has been overreacting to the shame of its receding racial past, and then of the way race has become such an all-purpose excuse for much of black America that many prominent black figures don’t seem to be able to leave home without it. Are blacks failing to keep up educationally with Asians and whites? “Institutional racism” must be to blame. Are blacks committing crimes out of all proportion to their representation in the population? The racist criminal justice system is responsible. Are a few high-paid black thugs threatening to bring down a sport that players like Michael Jordan had elevated to such a magnificent level? That’s just talk by racist white owners and officials rushing to judgment with disparate punishments leveled against blacks.
Such candor is missing because the so-called dialogue has been framed by people for whom there is only one acceptable conclusion: Blacks are victims; whites are to blame. That is why the chairman of the president’s commission on race excluded Ward Connerly, a pre-eminent critic of affirmative action, from the discussion (even though he also happens to be black). That’s even why President Clinton himself would brook no disagreement that affirmative action was a good thing during his town hall meeting on race in Akron, Ohio. Few dare to suggest that affirmative action has become racial payback. To oppose it is to blame the victim — which, of course, no decent person would do.
Those directing the dialogue can’t accept that America has moved far beyond the bad days of segregation and institutional racial injustice. This is the ’90s, with black multimillionaires like Sprewell constituting 80 percent of the NBA players, black millionaire mayors like Brown calling the shots in major cities and black millionaire lawyers like Johnnie Cochran commanding national audiences and magazine covers.
And the rest of America knows it. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the Sprewell affair — and to the ludicrous comments by people like Mayor Brown — suggests that the rest of America, including liberal sportswriters and commentators, may at last be ready to say it out loud: They have had it up to the ears with the blame-game and the self-flagellation, in no small part because they realize such attitudes only make things worse.
The Sprewell affair shows that we are approaching the end of an era, which is the best news about race yet. White America has changed. All blacks no longer look alike. Even ordinary Americans — sports fans, for instance — no longer look at blacks as the anonymous Other, the inscrutable menace or the universal victim. White America can tell the difference between a Latrell Sprewell and a Michael Jordan, between a Christopher Darden and a Johnnie Cochran, a Ward Connerly and a Willie Brown. There’s a lot of hope in that.