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The cognitive divide between black and white

THE TIME of the week has arrived at which I look at some problem or other and confidently pronounce, as though I knew, just what we should do about it. But I have no solutions today.

Today, I’m just sad, and solutions seem scarce. Part of it is personal. I just returned a few days ago from Pennsylvania, where my youngest daughter’s closest friend had died after a traffic accident. But there are other causes.

As I write, my wife is on her way back from Memphis, where she had been, tending to family business, when the awful news came about David. She had to fly back there after the funeral to get her car, and drive it home.

A few minutes ago, I checked on her by cell phone. I told her I was groping about for a column idea, and she said I should write about how lucky we were to be living in South Carolina rather than Memphis. She cited what she described as the painfully divisive victory speech Mayor Willie Herenton had delivered after his re-election a few days ago.

I just saw the video, and she’s right. Lord knows we have our own demons here in the state that was first to secede, and would do it again if some had their way. But there is a rawness to racial tension in Memphis that is hard to describe if you haven’t been there.

There was a time — 16 years ago, when he became the first black mayor of that city — when Willie Herenton was a sign of hope: a black man elected with both black and white support.

It was the sort of thing we had wanted and expected to see for a long time. Back in 1974, when we were students at Memphis State, Harold Ford — senior, not the one who ran for the U.S. Senate last year — ran for Congress against incumbent Republican Dan Kuykendall. My wife and I were totally for Ford, even though Rep. Kuykendall was her Dad’s friend and business partner. He had been all very well and good for the folks his age, but our generation was going to change things. And that race thing? Our kids would only know about that from history books.

So it was sad, here in the next century, to hear Mayor Herenton tell his supporters in his hour of victory that “I now know who is for me, and I also know who is against me,” and the overwhelmingly black crowd applauds, because they know just what he means.

For a man just re-elected to an unprecedented fifth term, Mr. Herenton had a huge chip on his shoulder. “There are some mean, mean-spirited people in Memphis,” he said to much cheering. “There are some haters.... I know about haters, and I know about shaking ’em off.”

He went on to tell about “two sad occasions” from the campaign. “I’m gonna let you know about the sickness in Memphis.”

He spoke of a basketball game at which he had presented the key to the city during halftime, and “the fans showed so much disdain and hatred... and that place was full, 90 percent white.”

Another time, while appearing live from Memphis on “Good Morning America” along with Justin Timberlake, “I get up on the stage, and it was 95 percent young white kids, they booed me on national television.”

“But what they want to say is, can Willie Herenton bring us together? I didn’t separate us.”

“Memphis got a lot of healing to do. But see, I don’t have that problem. They’ve got a problem.”

We’ve all got a problem, and not just in Memphis. What is Memphis but a great, big Jena, Lousiana? Another town where there are no heroes, just a place full of people, black and white, all messed up over race.

Mayor Herenton isn’t just some isolated megalomaniac. Judging by the reaction, every person in that room saw what he saw, just the way he saw it. And whites, watching on TV, saw a guy who was calling them racists.

The Commercial Appeal, the newspaper the mayor dismisses as the voice of the white establishment, harrumphed that “contrary to the innuendoes he made during his speech, the 58 percent of voting population who opposed him can’t all simply be dismissed as racists.” No, they can’t, especially since one of the two candidates who split the anti-Herenton vote was also black. But Herenton supporters can stew over the fact that in the whitest precincts, his support was in single digits.

It’s this cognitive divide between what white folks and black folks perceive, when both are looking at the very same thing, that keeps us from putting this mess behind us. And I didn’t just arrive at this conclusion.

Somewhere — maybe in a box in my attic — is a manila folder containing a printout of a column I wrote in 1995, but never ran in the paper. I wrote it in a state of bewilderment on the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted. I hadn’t followed the trial and didn’t care much about it one way or the other, but I had found myself in a room with a television when the verdict came in, and a crowd had gathered to hear it. You know what happened next: The black folks watching cheered; the whites stared in silence. To me, another rich guy’s lawyers had gotten him off; big deal. But that wasn’t the way my black friends in the room saw it at all, and I was shocked at the contrast. But because I had no solution to offer, because the column just chronicled my shock, I didn’t deem it worthy of publication. I’d hold it until I could come up with an answer.

I’m still holding it. And now, here we are. What’s my point? I don’t have one. I just think it’s sad. Don’t you?

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