Posing a racial question

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, June 19, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — The Virginia gentleman’s views on race were confirmed last month when, on successive weekends, groups of white and black motorcyclists rolled into Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The white bikers — well mostly white — left town with their bills paid, their motel rooms untrashed, and the restaurateurs grateful. The black bikers, not to put too fine a point on it, didn’t.

And so the Virginian (who doesn’t want his name used) found himself reaching the conclusion that … well, let him tell you about it. First, though, he wants to tell you about himself.

"I am white, in my mid-60s, born and schooled in a small-to-medium-sized city in Pennsylvania, graduated from integrated schools. I don’t recall any particular distinctions related to race.

"In my adult life, I have a few black friends, and I’ve had a number of black business associates. I have had blacks work for me, and I have worked for blacks. At the other extreme, for the past 20-25 years I have had a homeless black man as a friend. He comes to the house several times a week for a small gift of money, and on holidays I put him into a cheap motel."

This university-trained, professionally credentialed, middle-aged Virginian is, he wants you to know, a pretty good fellow — not a saint, by any means, but not a racist, either. But listen:

"In one part of my psyche," he boasts, "I have no element of racial consciousness, much less racial prejudice. On the other hand, in a different part of my psyche, I do have a variety of stereotypes that, when I think of the black race as a whole, are pretty negative and not too flattering."

And what does he suppose accounts for this inconsistency? Two things, he thinks. First, the human mind naturally seeks to categorize. It’s the way we make sense of our world. But the predisposition has the perverse effect of making us view both people and events not in individual terms but in large "globs."

The second thing, though, is that we tend not to view our own glob negatively.

"What that means," says the Virginian, "is that as regards my race, I dare not have negative stereotypes that would include me. Hence, when I have negative feelings about white persons, I apply those feelings to a smaller subset that doesn’t include me."

He offers a real-life illustration. He and his wife sometimes eat at a Pennsylvania restaurant where the staff is "lazy, slow, indifferent, almost slovenly" — and 100 percent white. "I never attribute their poor service to their whiteness," he says. "They are just a bunch of lazy SOBs or teen-age misfits."

When they eat at a certain Virginia restaurant, where the service is indifferent and the servers black or brown, he associates the poor service with race.

And it gets worse. "In the Carolinas along I-95, there are several places where the wait staff is all black and the service excellent." But no halo effect spills over onto black people generally. The excellent people he views as individuals, not as exemplars of a race.

And why did he want to talk about Myrtle Beach? The mostly white group of bikers—some 200,000 strong—was part of the annual Harley-Davidson rally. The smaller group that hit town the following week was, says the visiting Virginian, noticeably rowdier and, in some quarters, seemed less welcome.

But: "The Harley-Davidson bikers were mostly white, but they were also mostly old," he says. "No one seemed younger than 55, and most looked much older. The local newspaper says most of them are professionals — not surprising when their bikes are in the $20,000 range.

"The black bikers are young—no one seemed older than 35, and most much younger. Their bikes are cheaper, and they ride them with more, say, exuberance. They also tend to sleep several to a room, and spend less on food and entertainment.

"The point I’m trying to make is that, yes, these two groups of bikers are as different as night and day. But when considered as individuals, the differences are attributable to age, income and attitude — not to race.

"And yet, why does someone like me, who knows better and occasionally even acts better, still have racial prejudices?"

It’s a great question — and not just for the gentleman from Virginia.

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or willrasp@washpost.com.

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