The Great Divide Us Versus Them: Our Differences Are a Matter of Class as Well as Race

FIRST OF ALL, I had my facts wrong. I wanted to go to a gospel concert (it's good for the soul), and I thought I'd heard it was going to be held in the middle of Watts. In fact, it was scheduled over here. See where I'm pointing? On the safe side of town.

But, born in L.A. and brought up in integrated neighborhoods, I thought nothing of making the trip Down There--except for giving my traveling companions the half-facetious advice that they'd be better off not wearing blue or red.

Then a savvier friend, who still spends much of her time in an integrated world, blanched (no pun intended) at the plan and offered a sensible suggestion: "Let's take my car. It's old and beat-up."

I don't watch crime shows, fictional or otherwise, and I don't live in New York, so it's possible for me to imagine that racial polarization is not getting worse. But it hasn't escaped my notice that David Duke is on the celebrity fast track.

So many clues point to something that looks like progress. Any reader of the sports pages can tell you there are more black millionaires than ever. You have to read the other pages to be reminded that--to put it mildly--there are more black non-millionaires than ever as well.

And television seems finally to have realized it can make money showing us competent, successful African-Americans. Arsenio, Oprah, Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Ed Bradley, James Earl Jones--tokens, perhaps, but rich and powerful tokens, people at the top of their tokenhood. After all, not so long ago NBC canceled Nat "King" Cole's TV show because affiliates and sponsors fled like scared rabbits from a black star, even a king.

So just as we think we're on a straight line toward a whole year of Brotherhood Week, here comes David Duke, the handsomest product of the cosmetic surgeon's art, mainstreaming a new strain of post-Klan stand-up-for-whiteness and coming extremely close first time out to planting his posterior on a senatorial recliner.

The Nazi thing was just a mistake of his youth, Duke tells us now, like joy riding or cheating on a final. His campaign, he says, was nothing more than a plea for fairness, an attack on special favors for nonwhites. They got the right to sit at the lunch counter, he seems to say; how come now they're cutting in line for jobs flipping burgers? Blacks have made so much progress, why do they need more?

Could Duke's followers really be unaware that the successful blacks on TV are the exception, that the rule is still a once-enslaved, sub-nation trying to piece together its shattered family structure? The reasons they act as if they're unaware of it may be more than skin-deep.

This country has pulled off a unique social trick, most vividly in the Decade of the Rich and Famous just past. In most countries, the poor and middle class envy the rich and despise them for being so envied. Here, the rest of us envy the rich, but each of us fantasizes that, just a lottery ticket or major motion picture away, we'll become one of them.

The flip side of Robin Leachifying the rich is that, given the basic human need to despise somebody, we focus on the poor. In a country with a chocolate chip on its shoulder, that sentiment has often gotten translated into racial terms ("Negroes are happier not reading," old-time Southerners used to proclaim. If the "Negroes" could have read, they might have competed with the near-poor rednecks for the few available jobs). And now, racial terms get shrouded in code words like "fairness," since even Duke doesn't want to look like an outright racist any more.

So among the bluebloods, life changes, if slowly. To keep their PGA television money, even the lily-whitest country clubs in deepest Dixie will now grudgingly admit the necessary number of well-to-do African-Americans. And Duke Youth are not out picketing the 19th hole. They're probably home, watching Oprah or Cos.

But, down where the trickle-down trickles, the progress machine is stuck in neutral. In our long struggle from slavery and genocide to some nicer way of dealing with nonwhites, the hard part remains. The easy changes--say, why not let them vote?--have already been made.

Meanwhile, we've got our little lives to lead. My friends and I adopt the Beat-up-Car Disguise to pass safely onto foreign turf (we still have an easier task than the black pedestrian on Rodeo Drive). And Gangster Chic, all jewels and gold and German cars, is a teen-age crack dealer's warped view of life on the less smoggy side of town. Somebody should set these kids straight and get them a subscription to the Robb Report or something.

These are disturbing thoughts at holiday time. Just remember: To play beautiful music on the piano, you need both the black keys and the white keys.

Maybe that's why so many American kids take up the guitar.

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