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Racism's subtle new mask

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 8, 2002

Ten years ago, I had a phone conversation with a man who sold cellular phones in Astatula. He was witty in the wry way Southerners seem to have patented. I compared him to Andy Griffith. My editor at the time suggested that I was being unfair to Andy, the benign, beloved sheriff of Mayberry.

My cell phone salesman was neither benign nor beloved, my editor said. It seemed a minor point to me at the time, so I dropped the Andy Griffith comparison. I have many times regretted that surrender.

That one little accession helped perpetuate a lie. Hatemongers can also be witty, lovable people. My phone companion from Astatula was Tony Bastanzio, top sheet for the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization not known to be particularly witty or cuddly.

He probably would have been a fun guy on a trip, as long as it was during daylight hours and he wasn't wearing bedclothes.

I thought about that conversation recently as acquaintances of Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni expressed disbelief that the man they know could have expressed racially disparaging remarks in a conversation with a Times photographer.

But this isn't about Morroni or what he said or didn't say. This is about why race relations, specifically between black and white Americans, have reached a stalemate, with a majority of blacks believing that there is still much work to be done before opportunities are leveled, and whites preponderantly believing that equality of opportunity has been achieved. That's according to a study conducted jointly last year by Harvard University, the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

With increasing frequency, complaints of instances of perceived discrimination are falling on deaf, unsympathetic ears and are often met with admonishments and counteraccusations.

"I believe that racism is still prevalent and pervasive but has become more incognito and difficult to recognize until after the fact," said Darryl Rouson, who heads the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

Rouson, who has waged a campaign against crack cocaine in ways that have often garnered news coverage and public attention, now speaks cautiously on the subject of race and is feeling some frustration in trying to champion civil rights causes in an environment that's tired of hearing about them.

"I am at a loss. You don't want people to think you're crying racism all the time, but it's there, and you can feel it," he said. "I don't want to be in a position where I'm fanning the flames" by speaking out, he said, but neither can he keep quiet and ignore instances of injustice.

Often in seeking to resolve many of the complaints he receives daily as a lawyer and NAACP official, Rouson said he is more likely to hear explanations of why the occurrence was not discriminatory than he is to hear ideas about how to fix the problem, a reflection of the disparity the Harvard survey showed between black and white assessments of our progress.

Even in his profession, the arena where civil rights gains were ultimately made, he has seen signs of regression. When he returned to the city after nearly a 10-year absence, he was dismayed to find that the number of black judges had not increased. And African-Americans on the bench were now county judges, where they had been on the circuit bench before.

Look at the pool of candidates from which to draw, someone offered as a no-fault explanation. The pool of candidates included a record number of black lawyers, Rouson pointed out.

"The bogeyman exists," he said, the frustration apparent in his voice. Oh, but he was so much easier to deal with when he wore a sheet.

Now, in many cases, the "bogeyman" is often the same person who helped reduce the Klan to sideshow stature. The new bogeyman is not a hatemonger. He harbors no malicious feelings toward anyone merely because of their race, sexual orientation or national origin. He champions diversity -- in principle.

His friends and co-workers hail from a cross section of cultures. They are well-educated and would never utter a racial slur, not a real one, and rarely make a slip of the tongue that could be mistaken for one.

The new bogeymen's problem is that sometimes -- often -- they choose to hire, promote, lend money and provide a number of other privileges to people who look a lot like them. "They just happen to be the best qualified" is usually the explanation that works, even when the resumes or credit applications are almost identical, as they were in findings that showed disparities in home and auto loans.

The new bogeyman doesn't look like a bogeyman at all. There is no malice in his actions, and he is determined to do the right thing for everyone. If he errs, it is an honest, even honorable mistake. The new bogeyman's fault is that he believes he has gone far enough to make opportunities equal.

Recurring instances, sometimes accumulated in studies, show that we haven't. Trying to show the new bogeyman that he exists in those studies is a daunting task, as Rouson and others have learned.

It's almost enough, Rouson mused, to make you yearn for Tony Bastanzio and his toga-wearing brethren, for segregation and unabashed slurs. They were enemies you could see.

Now, the fight is largely against allies whose shortcomings often can be seen and felt only in the results of their actions.

They are still being felt much too often.

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