IT WAS A FRAIL notion that the United States, where racism built white wealth and perpetuates it at this very moment, would display any humility at the World Conference Against Racism. Its whole goal in Durban was to label someone else racist, which in this case was the Arabs who wanted to call Israel racist. That done, American delegates threw off the chains of egalitarian exchange and fled on their underground railroad to their safe houses on Capitol Hill and behind the Rose Garden.
There, they tiptoe in dim congressional corners, avoiding any contact with anyone who can handcuff them back into the court of America's unfinished business. There they cower, afraid that the whistling wind rattling the closed shutters is the ghost of Harriet Tubman. There they sweat, knowing that they have run from a firestorm in a foreign land to a raging furnace of resentment at home, growling up from the bellies of Tubman's descendants.
The sneering by the US was symbolized by the absence of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell is the top prop for white Americans who claim we have ended racism. Perhaps the Bush administration feared that Powell would hear the call of the drums in Durban and roar like Frederick Douglass. Douglass once said that there is no progress without struggle. Powell said 10 years ago, ''I am also mindful that the struggle is not over.''
There would be no struggle. It was most fitting that the United States was the first nation to run from its own shadow on racism. As of this writing, the Europeans were still in Durban, duking it out in that cantankerous cauldron. Perhaps that is because while they built their wealth on colonial slavery, they never worked as hard as the United States to systematically disunite and oppress millions of black people - for a century after slavery - within their own borders.
The United States could not send Powell to Durban without explaining why it pummels so many people who look like Powell. You name the health, education, or economic statistic, and African-Americans, the mule of racism, and Native Americans, the forest of humanity cut down so the mules could work the soil, still suffer at disproportionate rates.
America is simply not ready to admit that the $1.35 trillion tax cut of President Bush is connected to broken treaties and annihilated Indians. America is not ready to admit that the $8 trillion being passed down from the World War II generation to its baby boomers was hauled on the bent backs of black people who were barred from full rights from 1776 until the 1960s.
America is not ready to discuss how slavery was so critical to the nation that the South once had a larger economy than any European nation except England. According to some economists, slave labor was worth three times more than immigrant labor in the first half of the 19th century.
White escapists like to say that the white soldiers who died in the Civil War are the final apology and reparation for slavery. But America is not ready to discuss how ex-slaves were denied land and forced into peonage while many white Confederates got their land back, backed by the Ku Klux Klan.
America is not ready to discuss how white violence destroyed post-Civil War black businesses in the South and stopped them in the North at the ghetto's door. America is not ready to discuss how it did business with slavery in the North, from the cotton mills of Massachusetts to Aetna Insurance, Fleet Bank, and Ivy League schools such as Yale, Princeton, and Brown.
America is not ready to discuss the government-sanctioned housing and banking discrimination of the 20th century that will result in white baby boomers inheriting an average of $65,000, compared with $8,000 for black baby boomers, according to researchers for the Federal Reserve Board. Despite some fabulous progress for many individual African-Americans, America is not ready to discuss why high achieving African-American men on the whole still earn only three-fourths of what comparable white men make.
America has always hidden in racism's corners until flushed out by civil war, Little Rock, Rosa Parks, Birmingham, riots, or racial profiling. It hid after our last presidential election as black votes were disproportionately disqualified in Florida. America is hiding because it knows the growing call for reparations for slavery is legitimate. America has gone underground, trying to railroad any discussion because it is too painful to admit that the collective fruits and flowers of 21st century white America were watered with the red and black blood of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. America knows that when the descendants of Harriet Tubman bring the bill for slavery into the broadest of daylight, there is no telling what the struggle will become.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company