Race is just one window through which we see life

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, October 16, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Maybe Jim Bell, whose discrimination suit was thrown out of court last week, really did believe Domino’s Pizza intentionally discriminated against and "humiliated" him and his black neighbors in Southwest Washington by requiring them to come out to the curb to pick up their pizza deliveries.

And maybe racism really is the reason pizza delivery companies across the nation are refusing to deliver to certain parts of town.

But maybe it isn’t. D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff thought it wasn’t, at least in Bell’s case. She ruled that Domino’s policy of allowing its drivers to determine where they would make to-the-door deliveries and where they would require customers to meet them at the curb was a matter of driver safety, not racial profiling.

What interests me now, though, is the assumption behind the complaints: that if race is a possible explanation of the problem we’re addressing, then it must be the explanation.

Certainly racism is a possible explanation for the behavior of Domino’s drivers (and for the refusal of some companies even to deliver in some neighborhoods). Maybe the company’s owners, or at least its drivers, are racial bigots who avoid the under-served areas because those areas are heavily black.

Respond, as Judge Bartnoff did, that drivers safety is the real reason, and you’ll hear a second, derivative explanation: The fear of violence is exaggerated, in the minds of bigots, in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black. One way or another, racism is the problem.

You can hear this charge, made with the straightest of faces, even in this town where the leading newspaper had trouble recruiting youngsters as carries until it found a way to protect them from being robbed on collection day — where black taxi drivers as well as white often refuse to go to parts of Southeast Washington after dark, or if they do go, prefer to deadhead on the return trip.

Obviously not every passenger headed for Southeast after dark is an armed bandit — and some of the fares headed for Georgetown or Chevy Chase may have robbery on their minds. But if you’re a cabby in this town, you’re likely to play the odds. Too careful and you starve, too careless and you die. Your recourse, willy-nilly, is to stereotypes, and that means you’re more likely to pass up a young black male than any other category of fare.

It’s a hideous, enraging inconvenience for decent young black males, and patently unfair. But it is racism?

Frank Meeks, whose company owns 59 Domino’s franchises in the area, said his is the only company that operates in every quadrant of the city. The shop from which Bell ordered his pizza (and then got into a fracas with the driver) has an all-black staff, including the store manager, Meeks said.

That doesn’t prove the absence of racism, of course, but it ought to suggest the possibility of a different explanation.

And not just for pizzas. So many of our problems are made more intractable because we insist on viewing them exclusively through the window of race.

We have trouble getting a grip on slavery in Sudan — not because we are indifferent to slavery but because it’s harder to mobilize us when both the slaves and the enslavers are black. (Pre-liberation South Africa, with its clear black/white motif, may not have been easy to solve, but it was a snap to choose sides.)

We don’t know how to talk about the absence of chain-store outlets in some parts of the city except in terms of the corporations’ unwillingness to serve black people.

We’ve virtually lost our ability to talk constructively about our failing schools — not because we are incapable of generating ideas for improving education but because we’ve run out of white people on whom we can blame academic failure. (You can still get us motivated to oppose vouchers, if you are careful to describe vouchers as an anti-black trick of the white man.)

I don’t doubt that black Americans are, too often, innocent victims of negative racial assumptions — and of racism more direct than that.

But we live in a complex world, and if we are to be successful in understanding and coping with that world, we have to learn to view it through as many different windows as we can. One of those windows is race, and peering through it can provide valuable information.

But if race is the only window through which we view our world, we are likely to miss so much that failure becomes inevitable.

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