Posted: December 16, 2006

Paula Zahn devoted two of her hour-long CNN shows this week to the topic "Skin Deep: Racism in America." After taking the time to watch, the question I walked away with was: "What was the point?"

In my view, the shows told us little that most of us don’t already know – strong racist sentiments exist in the country – and really never asked the deeper and more important questions about what this means and why we should care.

According to Zahn, the production was provoked by Michael Richards’ now-famous racist rant in an L.A. comedy club. Given the incident, the CNN crew thought it was worth examining, "How much racism is there in all of us, just under the surface, that we’re really not aware of or willing to admit?"

But, again, what’s the point? Everyone has something just under the surface that he or she is not proud of or at least not ready to admit. Will national racist sensitivity training make this a better country? Was that the point?

The centerpiece holding the presentation together was a CNN/Opinion Research poll reporting that 84 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites believe that "racism is a serious problem." And, 51 percent of blacks say they feel they have been victims of discrimination.

Somehow, I couldn’t keep from looking at my watch and thinking about my laundry, despite the revelation of such bombshells as: there are still white-supremacist Ku Klux Klanners in America; there’s a little town in Texas with a racist past where those feelings may still be harbored; in association tests, psychologists show that people tend to be more positively disposed toward white faces than black faces; real estate agents can sometimes tell a black voice on the phone and decline to show a property.

I just couldn’t help wondering where Zahn and the CNN crew hang out if they really thought any of this was prime-time-worthy news.

Most blacks picked at random off the street could tell you by rote everything that this CNN show reported.

Which maybe drills down to what bothered me about the show. The point had to be to communicate with white America, because there certainly was no news for blacks. What was the message to white America?

Feel guilty? Be more sensitive?

Guilt I don’t need. Sensitivity is fine.

But how about the implicit message of the show, hanging so much of the quality of black life onto how whites feel about blacks?

As much as I would love to see greater sensitivity and humanity on matters of race, far more important to me is that the really hard questions are asked. Those that make concrete demands that might produce real change and improve black life in America.

In this sense, Zahn’s show failed abysmally.

It ignored the most destructive and widely prevailing racist attitude in our society today, one of which both blacks and whites are guilty. This is the attitude that blacks cannot be held to the same standards as whites.

Recently, Donald Rumsfeld, talking about the need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis, used the analogy of teaching a kid to ride a bike. He said that if you never let go of the bicycle seat, the kid will never learn to ride.

An attitude still prevails in America today that we can’t let go of the black bicycle seat, that blacks cannot be left alone to compete head-to-head, to fend for themselves and play by the same rules that every American lives and plays by.

Of course, there is a horrible history, one marred by slavery, by Jim Crow and then debilitation by the welfare state.

But soon it will be a half-century since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. A quarter of black America remains in poverty, the state of our inner-city black families is disastrous, and destructive behavior by our inner-city youth is widespread.

These problems will not get solved if the hand of the state remains on the bicycle seat of this community. And the attitude that we can’t let go defines today’s most virulent strain of racism.

So, in answer to the CNN crew’s question, there is indeed racism under the surface in our country today that we’re neither really aware of nor willing to admit.

It’s a racism of diminished expectations. A racism that says blacks still need special treatment in education and job placement, that we can’t give black parents freedom to choose where to send their kids to school, that we can’t let low-income black workers build wealth through a personal retirement account, instead of paying Social Security taxes, because they won’t know what to do.

This is the racism that will keep this community disproportionately in trouble.

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