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Racial Healing

Race Matters

Date: October 1, 1995, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By J. Anthony Lukas;

RACIAL HEALING Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. By Harlon L. Dalton. 246 pp. New York: Doubleday. $22.50.

BLACK, Latino and Asian-American law professors gathered at a Wisconsin retreat center in the summer of 1989 to consider how law should address racial issues in the post-civil-rights era. Each evening they sang to one another, mostly great spirituals and rhythm-and-blues numbers. On the last night, someone suggested they do a show tune. "Who let in the geek?" the author of this book thought, joining reluctantly in the "white bread" ditty. But before long they were belting out the razzmatazz with enough gusto to delight Ethel Merman.

Harlon L. Dalton, a black professor at Yale Law School, sees this experience as evidence that once black people are confident that their culture is vibrant, they can engage with mainstream culture "without fear of being swallowed up." "Racial Healing" is filled with notions like this -- concrete, often quirky ideas that suggest with a kind of daffy optimism that it is still possible for Americans to bridge the ugly chasm of race, which seems to many of us increasingly deep and perilous.

In a year that has given us the Fuhrman tapes at the O. J. Simpson trial, growing dismay over the grotesqueries of gangsta rap and continuing acts of mayhem in our decaying inner cities, some readers may find Mr. Dalton's talk of "healing" a bit naive. But his message shouldn't be misunderstood as some sort of New Age nostrum for instant racial reconciliation. Nor should it be seen as an effort to ignore, or paper over, our racial differences. Quite the contrary. Mr. Dalton is an advocate of straight talk, even if it turns unsettling or temporarily divisive. To him, all of us -- blacks, whites and others -- too often evade the racial content of our economic and social problems, out of a misplaced belief that race ought to be irrelevant in an enlightened society.

Whites, he argues, make the mistake of assuming that because race does not seem salient in their lives they can dismiss it as a relevant category. In political terms, this often translates into the argument that affirmative action and other programs of racial preference are counterproductive in a society that professes itself to be race-blind.

"Why do most white people not see themselves as having a race?" he asks. "In part, race obliviousness is the natural consequence of being in the driver's seat. . . . The most troublesome consequence of race obliviousness is the failure of many to recognize the privilege our society confers on them because they have white skin. White skin privilege is a birthright, a set of advantages one receives simply by being born with features that society values especially highly." So, far from ignoring race in our daily dealings, Mr. Dalton says, blacks and whites should confront each other about race, with candor and respect. "Once the fig leaf has fallen, we might as well look at what it has been hiding," he says. "For it is by exploring the things we dare not say to each other that we can best get to know one another."

Given Mr. Dalton's emphasis on frankness, some readers may see a contradiction in his advice that blacks delete the term "racist" from their vocabulary. But he isn't ignoring reality, merely trying to get at reality in all its complexity. By conjuring up images of "naked bigotry," he contends, the term ignores the more complex truth: that millions of "Good White People," unwitting beneficiaries of white skin privilege, "are more responsible for preserving and entrenching the racial pecking order than are the relatively few jerks who spew venom or act out of hatred." I find myself in full agreement here.

Toward the book's end, Mr. Dalton invokes a fantasy land called "Beigia" in which all citizens would be a beige color, in which all racial distinctions would be wiped away. Would we really want to live in such a land? His answer is, unequivocally, no. The fact that people come in different colors, he argues, is not our problem. Race itself is not our problem. The real question he asks is: "How do we uncouple race and power? How do we dismantle the pecking order?"

Here he brings us back to song -- obviously a central activity in his life. Mr. Dalton belongs to an interracial choir called Salt and Pepper. Notice, he says, that "we have not run away from race or tried to make it go away. In fact, we have placed it front and center. . . . Within the choir, race is linked with life experiences, culture and modes of presentation, but it is not linked with power. A soprano is a soprano is a soprano. . . . The only thing we have given up is the right to dominate one another."

Some readers may find Mr. Dalton's homespun analogies a bit irritating; some may find the optimist in him verging on the Pollyanna at times. But Harlon Dalton manages to communicate more provocative ideas on this incendiary subject in 246 pages than many authors do in twice the space. Most important, he comes across in this work as a thoroughly decent, compassionate and thoughtful human being -- and how often in this divided land does one get to say that?

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