MY WIFE AND I recently found ourselves in a passionate dinner conversation with another couple, and the subject turned to race. Among the four of us were a lawyer, two college professors, and a journalist, all disgusted by the likes of Trent Lott, all committed to a multi-racial society. We were on our second glass of wine before the first eyebrow-raising comment.
What about the Beltway sniper, one of the group asked.
What about him?
Our dinner companions felt that there was more to this story than met the eye. I thought for a moment. What did I believe? I felt that story revealed a lot of police bungling, astonishing given the increased vigilance about terrorism; I felt it was creepy that so many opportunities had been missed to catch suspects hidden in plain view. But beyond being relieved that they'd finally caught two loners who were pretty evidently the perpetrators, I hadn't given the sniper story much further thought.
Isn't it odd that that the cops were looking for a white guy in a white panel truck, my table companion was saying, and then finally produced two black guys? That the two alleged black assailants were repeatedly stopped by cops and released? That the White House swooped in and decided where they should be tried? That this distraction occurred at a time when public fears were being whipped up generally at the expense of civil liberty?
My table mate wasn't sure what the real story was, only that the real story wasn't coming out. And I had to admit that she might actually have a point.
This was the week that we learned prosecutors had totally fabricated the case against the supposed perpetrators of the Central Park rape. It was the week that Trent Lott looked as if he might well ride out the storm.
For every Tawana Brawley case of supposed racial brutality that turned out to be fake, American history displays millions of such episodes - one life at a time - that are real. Even Clarence Thomas, the great denier of racial remedy, grasped that.
Our dinner companions were, of course, African-American. My wife and I left the restaurant feeling the chasm separating the races in America in 2002, even among seeming kindred spirits. How many whites grasp the black experience as it is lived?
Segregation did not end with Strom Thurmond's defeat in 1948, the Brown v. Board decision in 1954, or with the passage of the great civil rights acts of the 1960s. It was a northern state, New Jersey, that only recently admitted it systematically engaged in racial profiling. The hazard of Driving While Black, or Shopping While Black, continues to dog ordinary African-American citizens and eminent ones.
Statistically, fewer minority Americans attend integrated schools today than in 1980. Housing continues to be massively polarized by race, as is voting. Affirmative action, which has not only helped broaden the black professional class but also has led to more settings where blacks and whites come to know a little of each other's life experience, is newly under assault.
Trent Lott was shoved aside by the White House for blurting out inconvenient truths. His stated views made it more difficult for the Republican Party to put on minstrel shows and offer speeches dripping with compassion, while appointing racist judges, battling affirmative action, resisting hate crimes legislation, and slashing social outlays that help minorities. Lott made it harder to hold down black voting in the name of ''ballot security'' while courting black voters, and disguising attacks on public education as expanded ''choice'' for black parents and stingy welfare reform as promoting self-sufficiency.
But most Democrats go only so far to improve race relations because they have to get elected. And as recent elections show, white voters have a way to go. An otherwise popular Georgia governor got defeated last month because he had the effrontery to use some political capital to rid a Confederate emblem from the state flag.
There could be some constructive side effects of the Lott affair. Republicans now will think twice about how to intervene in the antiaffirmative action case now before the Supreme Court; they may hesitate before appointing more racist judges.
But that's the easy part. More broadly, Lott's messy departure should also invite another of America's all too infrequent candid conversations about race, so that the white conscience pays more constructive attention to the black experience and erases a little more of the stain of slavery.
Holiday peace and goodwill to all.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company