MAXWELL:  America remains mired in racism

2/16/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During the more than 15 years I have written a column, I have responded in print to a letter writer only three times. The unspoken rule is to let the reader have the last word.

Occasionally, however, I must respond. A Tampa reader took me to task for being inconsistent. He loves for me to tell blacks to take responsibility, but he hates for me to remind whites that white racism still exists. Actually, the two things are not connected in any way. My critic is simply illogical.

“Perhaps,” he wrote, “Maxwell should read William Raspberry’s Feb. 1 column on Alan Keyes, When conservatives look beyond race. Many whites have gotten beyond race and class while black liberals have not.”

NOW HEAR THIS: Not a single living soul _ black, white, red, brown or yellow _ in the United States has gotten beyond race (and class). White conservatives darn sure have not gotten beyond it. Trust me when I say that the one person who has not gotten beyond race is the one who insists that he has.

The naked truth is that the United States is defined by race. I do not know where my Tampa critic lives, but I will bet that his world is not slopping over with folks of darker hues. If he is retired, I will bet that his former workplace was not jam-packed with my ebony brethren in important positions.

Look around.

St. Petersburg, where I live and work, is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Tampa is just as segregated as St. Petersburg. One of the things I like about the mayor of St. Petersburg is that he does not deny the enduring taint of race. During my years at the Times, the mayor has openly discussed race with the editorial board. And he tries to solve some of the problems. But before the mayor set out to solve problems of race, he first acknowledged that racism exists.

Look around.

Much of the strife in the St. Petersburg Police Department involves race. The black chief and many of his white officers will never get along because the department has a long history of racial antagonism.

Pinellas voters have never elected a black person to their School Board (Gov. Reuben Askew appointed an African-American to the board years ago, but he was defeated when he came up for election). Why? Race. Until the late Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Calvin Harris to the County Commission, a black person had never served. Why? Whites _ mostly Republicans _ would not vote for a black. I am not making this up. Look at the patterns for yourself.

Now, let me share a secret about white conservatives and Alan Keyes, the black Republican who battles windmills each presidential campaign: Keyes gives cover to whites who have spent their lives discriminating against black people. Keyes gives them a way to relieve themselves of guilt, a way to say, “See, I have gotten beyond race because I support Alan Keyes.”

Making matters even more convenient for his white fans is that Keyes made his name by condemning his own people to the point of obsession, by pretending that race no longer matters. Keyes says exactly what the nutty right wants to hear about blacks and race. Keyes gives these people a snug hiding place. He is their mouthpiece.

If truth be told, thoughtful white people do not waste their time with Keyes, whose campaign will not go anywhere _ not now, not ever.

Keyes also gives whites a way to misuse Martin Luther King’s words that called for a time when blacks could be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Only the most pernicious hypocrite would use King’s words to argue that race and class are dead in America. King was speaking of a nation that was mired in racism, where blacks were judged by the color of their skin.

Well, guess what? America is still mired in racism. Blacks are still judged by the color of their skin. Our public schools are more segregated now than they have been in years. Racism still keeps blacks and whites in segregated neighborhoods. Banks still turn down qualified loan applicants because they are black. Real estate agents still steer blacks away from white neighborhoods.

King, whom I knew personally, would be appalled that his words have been appropriated in such a way. He was a realist and, were he alive, would dare anyone to claim that race (and class) is no longer a problem, that his children and grandchildren are now judged solely by the content of their character.

Enough of the nonsense already.