In order to be admitted to certain Washington jewelry stores, customers have to ring a bell. The ring-back that opens the door is almost perfunctory. According to the owner of one store, only one type of person does not get admitted: Young black males. The owner says they are the ones who stick him up.
Nearby is a men's clothing shop -- upscale, but not really expensive. When young black males enter this store, the sales help are instructed to leave their customers and, in the manner of defensive backs in football, "collapse" on the blacks. Politely, but firmly, they are sort of shooed out of the store. The owner's explanation for this? Young blacks are his shoplifters.
Are these examples of racism? The shopkeepers either think so or think they can be accused of it. They are loath to talk about their policies and quick to assert their liberalism, but business, as they say, is business. Most of their customers apparently concur. Usually they say nothing when they see blacks turned away, and one white congressman, witnessing some blacks being rebuffed, said that if he owned the store, he would do the same even though he considers himself a liberal. He obviously thought there was a contradiction between his ideology and his self-interest.
For too long now, liberals have reacted to race as predictably as the racists they so abhor. Like racists, they too sometimes see nothing but race, ignoring all other factors. As long as race is involved, it dominates. For instance, it was not just race that bothered some school-busing opponents; it was social class as well. As for our Washington storekeepers, race is only one factor in their admissions policy. Age and sex count, too. And while race is clearly the most compelling factor, ask yourself what their policies would be if young white males were responsible for most urban crime.
Of course, all policies based on generalities have their injustices. A storekeeper might not know that the youths he has refused to admit are theology students -- rich ones at that. But then insurance companies had no way of knowing I was not a typical teen- age driver. I paid through the nose anyway.
A nation with our history is entitled to be sensitive to race and racism -- and we are all wary of behavior that would bring a charge of racism. But the mere recognition of race as a factor -- especially if those of the same race recognize the same factor -- is not in itself racism. This may apply as much to some opponents of busing or public housing in their own neighborhood as it does to who gets admitted to jewelry stores. Let he who would open the door throw the first stone.
He followed up with a column on 9/14/86 which is eerily familiar:
A caller, let's call him Bill, phoned to criticize a column I did in The Washington Post Magazine about storekeepers who will not serve young black males. He is a young black male, the caller says, but also a lawyer, and he describes some of the experiences I wrote about. He names the stores where he cannot be served, where he is given the bum's rush, and he tells about the night he and his girlfriend went to the movies and then waited for two hours before a cabdriver would pick them up. He says that my column has sanctioned this sort of treatment.
Bill's call was far from the only one I received. There were many, most from blacks, some approving, most not. Some were harsh and insulting, some racist about whites, but there were some, like Bill's, that could be labeled constructive criticism. These I appreciated.
Now I am being accused of racism. The accusation stings if only because there is no way to prove otherwise. It is said that in describing the situation and empathizing with the merchants, I am either somehow responsible for it or, worse, have abetted it.
But I was attempting to point out in my magazine column that what seems like racism -- the refusal to admit or serve young blacks -- is often more complicated than that. Sure, it is sometimes nothing but racism, but for some merchants -- and some cabdrivers, black as well as white -- race is only one element.
A cabdriver who passes up a young black male is seeing more than race. He is also seeing sex and age. The three together fit the profile of the most common type of Washington criminal, and the cabdriver acts accordingly. In a different city, a different kind of person would be passed up. The thinking that goes into that decision is quite different from the thinking that made white cabdrivers of old Washington pass up blacks of any sex or any age simply because they were black. It does no good to simply label as racist those whose motives are otherwise, those, in fact, who may be of the same race.
I wrote a difficult column about a difficult subject -- a dilemma for both whites and blacks. I realized that I was providing a justification for some racists, but the only way to avoid that was not to write at all -- and that would not have changed the situation one iota. I wanted very much to get past the knee-jerk response of racism when certain subjects are raised. To some extent I succeeded and to some extent I failed. I take heart from the number of people like Bill who called neither to denounce nor to insult, but to say, "Let's talk."