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Coming to grips with race in America

Published: Sat, February 7, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

I have had a book in my library for years that I finally decided to make time to read. It is called “Crossings: A White Man’s Journey into Black America.” The book, published in 1994, was written by Walt Harrington, an award-winning staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine.

Harrington says the idea for the book sprouted from a racist joke his dentist told about a stupid black man. Harrington is married to a black woman, and they have two children.

Harrington points out that just white people were around, and the dentist felt that it was all right for such a joke to be told.

Harrington wrote down his reaction: “How many racist jokes have I heard in my life? Five thousand, maybe ten thousand, at least. But today, for the first time — who knows exactly why? — I am struck with a deep, sharp pain. I look at this man, with his pasty face, pale hair and weak lips, and I think: This idiot’s talking about my children!”

Harrington was 39 then, and for the first time, he wrote that he really felt the “intimate intrigues and confusions of race in America.”

So the journalist, who grew up in Crete, Ill., embarked upon a 25,000-mile journey that would take him to the rural backwoods of Mississippi, to the urban areas in Detroit and Chicago, the vastness of Texas and the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. He interviewed older black people who lived their entire lives in segregation and were treated as second-class citizens. He also would interview rich and famous blacks, including movie director Spike Lee and Ed Gardner, founder of the hair-care business Soft Sheen, which Gardner and his wife began out of his kitchen sink in 1964 in Chicago.

“Crossings” is based on Harrington’s handwritten notes taken during his numerous interviews at the scene of his travels as well as more than 250 hours of taped interviews and his own taped observations.

The book is a fascinating look at how whites look at blacks, how blacks look at whites, and how blacks look at themselves.

Harrington points out some historical perspectives as well, including this nugget: American Indians owned slaves. The Chickasaw Indian Nation denied blacks the right to vote and their children the right to attend Chickasaw schools. That prompted Harrington to write, “How crazy is our racial history: red men discriminating against black men in white America.”

Harrington does an excellent job describing the people he meets, the homes they live in, and the conditions they face. He writes about one of the sore points within the black community: light-skinned blacks vs. dark-skinned blacks. And, of course, there are many words dedicated to black men dating and having sex with white women.

I recommend you get a copy. I’m sure you can find one with all the help that is available on the Internet.

In the book’s epilogue, Harrington reflected on his travels. He found white prejudice, black prejudice, white ignorance and black ignorance. I found this statement he made especially appropriate: “Today, the advantages of privileged birth and excellent education are as real for blacks as they are for whites, and it’s simple dishonesty or disingenuousness to deny it. But so also is true that white prejudice and discrimination are real and are not going away soon. In short, race still matters, but it is no longer all that matters. It is time for whites to admit that despite all the changes of the last several decades, racism is still a plague on America. It is time for blacks to admit that as bad as racism is today, great strides have been made.”

And, thus far in this century, the greatest stride has been America electing the son of an African man and a Caucasian woman to the highest elected office in the land.



1JD010101(137 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

Ernie, the only racism that is alive and very well in this nation is fertilized by the black american. Really its old, the white's in america elected a black president not the blacks. The black population is only 12% of the nation so gee where did all the votes come from. The whites, therefore we are not the racist ones as your Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Al Sharpton or Rev. Jesse Jackson would like you to think it is Blacks like these 3 that keep stirring the pot so they have a job and people like you can keep writing on a story that is truthful but the colors in of the racists are reversed.

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2Youngstown_Strong(91 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

JD010101 you completely missed the point of this article. The author isn't accusing you or other whites of being racist he is saying that the book explores the topic and comes to the conclusion that racism exists, no matter what color you are. I'm white and grew up in ytown, racism exists there. It is everywhere, don't lie to yourself and try to blame it on other people. Everyone has prejudices, myself included. Confront your own prejudices and you'll learn a lot about yourself and racism. Stop passing the buck.

When I was 16 in the mahoning valley, I was confronted by a man who gave me a business card for the KKK. I kept it as a disturbing reminder of how bad people still lurk around, even in our valley and how hatred & racism still exist.

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3Heard_it_all_before(62 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

Another great book that explores race firsthand is "Black Like Me". It was written by a white man who went so far as to dye his skin black to live as a black man in 1960's America to learn what it was "really like". The lessons from that book, compared against the book referenced in the above article should show some of the progress we have made. It should also show where we have failed to change. As to the election, most people I know voted for a message of hope and the feeling that Barak Obama believed in what he was saying and truly wants to change government for the better. I know, I know. It may end up being more of the same and a study in frustration - but he represents an opportunity we so desparately need. And that has little to do with his race.

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4Education_Voter(1153 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

I'll get the book, Ernie. It's true that because I'm white, people who look like me make comments they would never make if Blacks were present. (And I realize that this situation also exists among Blacks.)
I am waiting for the day I will no longer hear one telling question. When people ask which school I have been assigned to work in, they often share fond memories of it. But the next question most often is, "How many of the kids are Black now?"

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5dbdbdb(6 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

jd is right. we elected a black man president so racism cannot possibly exist. forget all the emails that passed between the 48% of the country that voted against him that were full of hateful, bigoted material. also, forget the fact that we don't have a single elected senator with black skin.

thanks for enlightening us, jd.

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6Stan(9923 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

The terms racist and racial are kept alive and in the news by the liberal political establishment. This keeps the black man mentally enslaved to them. Freeing ones mind is the only way that the human spirit can flourish with limitless potential.

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7Nonsocialist(710 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

This Era of Victimhood has gotta end soon. It only serves to divide us further.

I have experiences as a white male who was discriminated against in terms of jobs, child custody, scholarships, and school admissions. I'm Polish, and I've heard inumerable Polish jokes, the foundation of which is that my family and I are stupid.

As far as Harrington goes, stupid jokes will exist as long as ignorance does, which in turn will exist as long as human beings do. Hate exists, and it is not just directed at blacks. He, nor his wife nor his children are not victims. He needs to accept that ignorance and hate exists, and perhaps improve society by promoting unity, and not victimization and division.

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8cityguy(109 comments)posted 7 years, 4 months ago

Nonsocialist: I'm guessing you read the book then? Because otherwise how would you know Harrington is promoting "victimization and "division"?

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