You've interviewed dozens of poor, middle-class and wealthy blacks and whites. What is I lie most important thing they've taught you about racial attitudes?
Racism is America's great obsession. It's an issue that's been with us since the first slave ship landed in 1619, yet it's difficult for white society to admit its racism. As one black journalist said, our country, which was founded on the principles of enlightenment, practiced slavery. It required plenty of denial to have those two conditions existing simultaneously. Racism and its denial are to this day indelible parts of our culture.
How does that affect the lives of American blacks?
A black man once said to me that race is always on his mind, from the moment he wakes up to the time he goes to sleep. "Being black in America is like being forced to wear ill-fitting shoes," he said. "It's always uncomfortable on your feet, but you've got to wear it because it's the only shoe you've got."
Has the shoe grown less comfortable in recent years?
There have been backward steps during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Reagan's trickle-down theory worked, but not the way it was advertised. What has trickled down is a meanness of spirit that pervades our society.
How did socio-political conditions of the past decade contribute to the recent rioting in Los Angeles?
The Rodney King verdict was simply the spark that set off a flammable tinderbox. This country is experiencing a level of joblessness unprecedented since the Great Depression. In parts of Los Angeles today more than 40 percent of the minority community is unemployed. Nearly one-third of all black families in America live below the poverty line. Half of all black children are born in poverty and will grow up in poor families. Among black people there is frustration, anger, hatred. Among whites there is fear, hatred and denial.
What stereotypes do whites hold about blacks today?
According to a University of Chicago poll, 56 percent of non-blacks believe that African-Americans are more violence-prone than whites; 62 percent believe they are more likely to "prefer to live on welfare" and less likely to "prefer to be self-supporting." It simply proves that whiles don't have a clue as to what black society is about. They only know the images offered on TV of kids in handcuffs. But the core of the black community has always been the working person.
Often, whites can't help their reactions. I know a white woman who battled for civil rights. One day she was driving and some blacks started hollering at her. Scared, she rolled up the windows and drove faster. Suddenly she realized she had been driving the wrong way down a one-way street. They were trying to help her.
What can be done to change racist altitudes?
Whiles must get to know blacks better and not accept the stereotype as truth. The country needs full employment, because racism flourishes in hard times. I think it's time for a national employment program like Roosevelt's WPA, which employed millions of people. The infrastructure of our cities is breaking down, and there are hands available for those jobs in great numbers.
Will our recent unrest worsen race relations, or could it push us toward positive change?
Quite frankly, it's an open question. I think there is a reed of hope in what happened. People do have the capacity to change. What we need now is governmentally created jobs. Our country owes every citizen of the United States the means of livelihood—not a handout, but a way to make it. And more than ever, we need voices of enlightenment.