Do you think the proper way to talk about race now is to talk about multiculturalism?
I came from a town where there were two races, black and white. There were a few Chinese people, and this may sound shocking, but I had no idea they were a different race. I thought they were a different nationality, like Italian or French. Now you have people coming here from Cambodia, from Egypt, from Colombia, from places you never thought would be sending us their huddled masses. I mean, surely 20 years ago no one could have imagined a more unlikely pair of words than "Korean deli." And all these people think of themselves as being members of different races. Ethnic groups have taken on the same weight as racial groups, with the same demands, the same notion of themselves.
To me, this plays into the hands of the people in power -- the white people. If you want to ensure generation after generation of Mexican gardeners in California, you insist on bilingual education in the grammar schools. You can pretend that you would just as soon have your cardiologist speak to you in Spanish, but if you don't speak Spanish, you would just as soon not.
If you're black, don't you say to yourself, "We've been here for a zillion years, and here are all these people coming along, acquiring power by saying they're powerless acquiring power by equating their lot with ours"? Blacks are the standard of oppression. People are always taking appalling historical events that one would hope are unparalleled and making absurd and immoral equations: the police raid the Stonewall Inn and instantly and forever it's "Bull" Connor turning the fire hoses on the marchers in Birmingham; antiabortion maniacs throw fetuses at abortion-performing doctors and an absolutely unembarrassed analogy is made to a lynch mob. These things are categorically unrelated, as are most things. Things are very rarely exactly like other things. If they were, people would be less baffled in general, and perhaps less given to such statements as "This is like the Holocaust." Nothing is like the Holocaust. Not that there haven't been other tragedies, other genocides. But simply that they were peculiarly, specifically, intrinsically like themselves. Genocides are like snowflakes, each one unique, no two alike. You can't go around making these horrendously invalid comparisons. It is disgraceful and annoying. If you were in Auschwitz, you undoubtedly feel that on top of having been in Auschwitz you shouldn't also have to have your experience used to justify, say, gay marriage.
What is actually served by multiculturalism and all things attendant to it is the power of white people, and this, despite any and all such academic quibbling, is primarily accomplished by the continuing oppression of blacks. Because even though the conversation now includes all these other elements, the truth is that the farther you are from being black, the more likely you are to assimilate, to be more like white. The more you are like white, the less trouble you have because the more you are like white, the less trouble you are.
How do you think we should approach the topic of race in this country?
Clearly in some other way -- in as other a way as possible -- because if ever there was an example of something not working, this is surely it.
What are we doing wrong?
Well, first of all, by "we" I assume you mean the public, the public approach or the public discourse, which means the discourse that takes place in the media. And for the purposes of this discussion, let us imagine that the media is white and thus approaches the topic of race as if they (the white people) were the answer and them (the black people) were the question. And so, in the interest of fairness, they take their turn (having first, of course, given it to themselves) and then invite comment by some different white people and some similar black people. They give what purports to be simply their point of view and then everyone else gives their beside-the-point of view.
The customary way for white people to think about the topic of race -- and it is only a topic to white people -- is to ask, How would it be if I were black? But you can't separate the "I" from being white. The "I" is so informed by the experience of being white that it is its very creation -- it is this "I" in this context that is, in fact, the white man's burden. People who think of themselves as well intentioned -- which is, let's face it, how people think of themselves -- believe that the best, most compassionate, most American way to understand another person is to walk a mile in their shoes. And I think that's conventionally the way this thing is approached. And that's why the conversation never gets anywhere and that's why the answers always come back wrong and the situation stays static -- and worse than static.
Well, that's part of the problem. What's part of the solution?
The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, "What would it I be like to be black?" but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That's something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, "We have to level the playing field," but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word "advantage" at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.
It is now common -- and I use the word "common" in its every sense -- to see interviews with up-and-coming young movie stars whose parents or even grandparents were themselves movie stars. And when the interviewer asks, "Did you find it an advantage to be the child of a major motion-picture star?" the answer is invariably "Well, it gets you in the door, but after that you've got to perform, you're on your own." This is ludicrous. Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game, especially in movie acting, which is, after all, hardly a profession notable for its rigor. That's how advantageous it is to be white. It's as though all white people were the children of movie stars. Everyone gets in the door and then all you have to do is perform at this relatively minimal level.
Additionally, children of movie stars, like white people, have at -- or actually in -- their fingertips an advantage that is genetic. Because they are literally the progeny of movie stars they look specifically like the movie stars who have preceded them, their parents; they don't have to convince us that they can be movie stars. We take them instantly at face value. Full face value. They look like their parents, whom we already know to be movie stars. White people look like their parents, whom we already know to be in charge. This is what white people look like -- other white people. The owners. The people in charge. That's the advantage of being white. And that's the game. So by the time the white person sees the black person standing next to him at what he thinks is the starting line, the black person should be exhausted from his long and arduous trek to the beginning.
When did you first become aware of race as an issue in American society?
I probably had some slight awareness of it from hearing about segregation at school, or eavesdropping on adult conversations, or seeing the sit-ins in the South on television. I had a very strong association, an exclusive association, of racism with southerners. To me as a child, it was a southern thing. I think it probably also had to do with the way they taught the Civil War to us in my northern grammar school. In real life, the first time I can remember thinking about it was when a neighbor called my mother to say, "Did you know that Fran is in the front yard playing with a little colored boy?" I was really young, about five or six. My mother got into a fight with the neighbor. We lived in a small house. It was summertime. There were screen doors. These things are important because you could always hear the grown-ups talking. This was the 1950s, an era when there was such a thing as adult conversation. An era when there was such a thing as an adult. An era when there was such a thing as conversation. Now children can hear everything, and adults speak like children. My mother was furious at the neighbor, and I was shocked that someone from a good state like New Jersey would have these bad southern views.
That was the essence of it to you?
Without question. To me as a child, all villains were to be compared to Communists. It was the height of the Cold War. It was a very Republican town. We were steeped in anti-Communist lore and so the worst people I could think of were Communists. They were the people I was scared of. Next were southerners -- not as bad as Communists, because I couldn't imagine anything as bad as Communists, except, of course, Nazis, who, although definitely scarier than Communists, were, I felt, more my grandparents' department. My grandparents were in charge of Nazis. I was in charge of Communists.
Nazis were the worst, then Communists, then southerners. Although I had every belief that the Russians were plotting night and day to bomb Thomas Jefferson School in Morristown, New Jersey-- every conviction that I was absolutely in the sights of the Russians -- I had no notion that southerners or racism could be in my life. In other words, I had more expectation of having contact with Russian Communists, who were on the wrong side of the Cold War, than I did with southern racists, who were on the wrong side of the Civil War.
Are black people cooler than white people?
The notion that black people are cooler than white people is one that I am instinctively repelled by because it is adolescent, not only in content but also in form -- it's a teenager's idea of an idea. It's the moron in the oxymoron. In this case, however, I think it is true. Not because of the obvious, even blatant coolness of such black inventions as jazz, or fun, or a certain kind of stylishness in dress, but because coolness is a sensibility, and sensibility, at least in this country, has chiefly been the province of the marginalized rather than the oppressed -- an example being the homosexual invention of camp. Oppression is usually so annihilating that it destroys the very possibility of sensibility. The invention of cool, the invention of a sensibility, by people who are so oppressed is in itself conclusively cool. They were literally cool enough in the face of the heat of oppression to invent a sensibility, one that is in every respect as rarefied, as ornate, as redolent of connoisseurship as camp, and, unlike homosexuals, they kept it even when white people took it away and made it square. When straight people took camp away and made it square, homosexuals couldn't wait to join them in their squareness -- to beat them to the punch. Who are now the most square people on earth? Who are the only people left who want to go into the army and get married? Homosexuals. Black people stayed cool even when white people stole it and made it square. That's undeniably cool. And that's what good sports black people are. With oppression staring them in the face, they averted their gaze and invented cool. Of course, as usual, they didn't do it on their own -- they needed sunglasses.
Traditionally, education is seen as the only real solution to the problems of black children. Do you think this still holds true?
Absolutely -- look how well it's working for white children. I think it is generally agreed that the great scandal in this country is the state of public education. But far worse than the problem is the currently fashionable, but in no way stylish, Republican proposal that it be solved by the use of school vouchers -- a genuinely diabolical plan and one that, if instituted, would surely result in the end of any sort of democratic society. Recently a business magazine devoted an issue to this subject and used black parents who wanted school vouchers to argue their case for them. It's so profoundly deceitful for rich people to ask "Why should rich people be the only ones to send their children to private school?" when the answer is so plainly that they have the money. So serviceable, in fact, is this answer that for the edification of these bewilderingly bewildered millionaires I offer it also as the clear explanation to the centuries-old riddle of why only rich people own Sargent portraits, vintage Daimlers, and beachfront property.
These black parents are decoys, to distract your attention from what the Voucherites are doing -- which is lowering taxes. School vouchers are advantageous because they would result, ultimately, in no public school system at all there's no free lunch in the totally free market. School vouchers are, for the readers of such a magazine, about lowering taxes. Life, for these readers, is about lowering taxes. They look constantly for the cause of taxes the way oncologists look for the cause of cancer, and, like surgeons, cut them out wherever possible, even at the expense of what you might previously have thought of as a vital organ. The public school system -- what an obvious cause of taxes. what a drain it is on our hard-gained capital.
Not to mention that even among not-so-rich white people there is a sizable constituency for the notion that the public schools attended by poor blacks are useful only as a source of professional basketball players -- so, conceivably, one such school would really be sufficient. Perhaps I am judging them too harshly and what they are really doing is at long last making good on a very old promise: 40 Lakers and a school.
Why are there so few black writers?
There aren't few enough. There aren't few enough white writers, either. One thing we desperately need in this country is fewer writers of every color.
What do you think are the most virulent stereotypes held by blacks of whites and by whites of black?
All stereotypes held by all people are equally virulent -- it's just that some are more fun than others. People hate the bad ones but love and even cultivate the good ones, despite the fact that they are imprisoning and diminishing to the same extent. Both pride and prejudice should be individually earned because allocating them at a group rate is, in fact, the very definition of racism. I say this even though I myself am guilty of taking pleasure even sustenance, on those days when nothing else is going right in thinking: Donald Trump is still not Jewish.
There is a lot of opposition to affirmative action, even among liberals. What do you think is the basis of this?
Well, some of it is simple racism and some of it is complex racism. By complex racism I mean the kind that argues for the color-blind society -- the kind that is mendacious, that is corrupt, that harbors a little white lie. First of all, it is disingenuous at this point in time to equate race with mere color. The opportunity for that is long since gone. Initially, it was true that the only difference between blacks and whites was skin color, but the experience of centuries of racism has made that idea utopian.
Second of all, it should be more than apparent to anyone who has ever had occasion to observe the travel attire of the average American family as they snack their way toward the departure gate that a color-blind society is something we already have. A race-blind society is something we don't.
And since we don't, we need some kind of affirmative action I am suspicious of the insistent and incessant focus on the exceptional. The endless discussion of law-school applications. The ceaseless debate regarding admission to medical school. Always the attention is placed on the gifted black person. So whites can point to these people and say, Yes, there's been historical progress. Yes, it is true that 50 years ago a black person with the I.Q. of Isaiah Berlin would have been a janitor, and now look: we've solved the problem of what to do with the black geniuses -- they have the same opportunities as the white geniuses. But we don't need affirmative action for these people and we never did. The problem of the talented tenth was actually solved by the civil-rights movement. It is to create parity between the untalented 90th and its white counterpart that we require what are perversely called racial preferences -- I say perversely because surely we all know which race is genuinely preferred, talented or not. We will have equality when dopey black people get into Harvard because their chair-endowing grandfathers went there. We will have equality when incompetent black people buy their way into the Senate. We will have equality when larcenous black union plumbers start not showing up in greater and greater numbers. We will have equality when the unjust deserts and ill-gotten gains are spread around impartially. One Clarence Thomas is not enough.