THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING
JANUARY 3, 1996
David Shipler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and former "New York Times" reporter, talks about his upcoming book on race relations Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
DAVID SHIPLER, Author: Whites have not heard blacks in their frustration and rage about their marginalization in American society. The small slights that can take on enormous proportions, and blacks, I don't think, hear whites in their efforts to overcome the racial divide. I mean, a lot of whites are people of goodwill and don't want to be racists but don't exactly know how to behave in a way that will make them tolerant people. And also, I think that many whites don't listen to themselves, don't hear themselves. A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner, and there was a man who was a white attorney in Washington, and he was talking about how many black lawyers leave mostly white law firms and go to black law firms, where they don't have to work as hard. Now, that comes from one of the four stereotypes that many whites have of black people, which is a belief that they're lazy, they're less intelligent. This has been documented in some interesting polling that has been done in the last few years which shows a widespread view of blacks as less intelligent, preferring to live on welfare, and so forth. The statistics are striking.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Has anything changed in the five years that you've been writing about race that has made this whole situation any different?
DAVID SHIPLER: The only change I can perceive is that we may have become more aware of the problem now than we were when I began on this project. I think five years ago there was a sense among many white people, at least, that the situation in the country was okay, that it was essentially economic in nature, but that there has been now, particularly in the wake of the O.J. Simpson verdict, when there was such a dramatic visual divide between blacks and whites in terms of the response to that verdict, I think there's been an awakening which is equivalent to the awakening that takes place after urban riots. There is a short window of opportunity in which people are ready to re-examine some of their own attitudes, look again at the relationships and think perhaps a little more creatively about how to overcome racial problems.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: While we've had a lot of calls for a conversation, people seem to be fixed in their perceptions of things in a way that I'm not convinced the conversation is going to affect.
DAVID SHIPLER: You may be right, Charlayne. I think it may be too early to tell how fixed they are. I think a lot of whites--white people who know I've been working on this book--ask me questions as if I were some kind of expert on the black community, which is ridiculous.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like what kind of questions?
DAVID SHIPLER: Well, for example, they want to know why was it that blacks were so delighted by the O.J. Simpson verdict? So what I say to them is, look, if you want to know about this, sit down one day with an African-American, preferably a male whom you know, and ask one simple question: Have you ever been hassled by the police? And I guarantee you that the answer you get will be educational, because I have rarely met an African-American male in my travels around the country who has not been unjustifiably stopped and hassled by white police officers.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Across economic lines?
DAVID SHIPLER: Across economic lines. This includes off-duty police officers, themselves, who are black, who have been stopped while driving in a white neighborhood late at night and that sort of thing. Now, what that does is make many blacks feel that they have--that they are not really part of the system, that they are targets of suspicion all the time and potential victims in a very serious way. And so I think that it's important for those of us who are white to begin to listen to our fellow citizens who are black and hear what they say and what they have experienced and we'll learn something.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tell me a little bit more about some of the misperceptions you've encountered on the part of whites about blacks.
DAVID SHIPLER: It begins with skin color. It doesn't end there. It has to do with hair styles, dress. It has to do with accent, the way people speak. There is a whole set of attitudes which many whites have that if a black person speaks in what might be called black dialect, he is or she is automatically inferior in some way, i.e., less intelligent, potentially violent, threatening in some, you know, way that's difficult to define.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about blacks? You said that blacks, themselves, have some issues that need to be looked at.
DAVID SHIPLER: I'll give you an example. I was sitting at Colgate with a group of black students several years ago now. They were telling me about issues that had come up on campus, and one of the black students is on the track, said he was out early one morning on a beautiful day, working out with a white guy on the team, and the black guy said, "What a propitious day for a work out." The white guy said, "Propitious? I didn't know you knew words like that." And the black guy interpreted that remark as racist in that the white guy thought the black guy was too stupid to know such a word. Now, when he told me this story, I said to the black track guy, I said, "You know, maybe the white guy was just teasing you the way I might tease another white guy for using such a big word in such a circumstance." My feeling about all of this is that there is a--on the part of some African-Americans a quickness to make judgments about whites and put them in a racist category when that may or may not be what's going on.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have any sense after all this work that you've done of how you--if it is possible to narrow the chasm, if it's possible to have a good dialogue, if it's possible to get along?
DAVID SHIPLER: It's possible to do all those things if everyone at all levels works on them. This is not something that can be left to our political leadership because there, there's been a vacuum.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, and this might be a difficult question for you to answer, but what is the perception or stereotype or feeling that you discovered in yourself that was the most either startling or revealing?
DAVID SHIPLER: I want to emphasize that there is a difference between racist thought and racist action. And not to dodge your question, but to go back to something that the military does, which is very instructive, the military says to its people you can think anything you like, that's your business, but what you do is our business, and if you act in a way that is discriminatory, that undermines the effectiveness of the unit, and that's what we're trying to deal with. May I give you one example? I was interviewing a black B-52 pilot, and I asked him why it was that so few blacks relatively made it into flight school in the Air Force and then got their wings. A lot of them wash out. He said, he didn't know, but he said, there is something subjective about evaluating a pilot. If you're up in the, in the air with a flight instructor, who is almost invariably white, the flight instructor has to make split-second decisions about taking the controls away from you if you're doing something dangerous. If in that instructor's mind you, as a black person, are somewhat inferior, the instructor at some level will not trust you and will move more quickly to take the controls away from you. The problem is that a pilot in training has to be allowed to go beyond his horizons and do more than he did last time. So if the white flight instructor somehow in his gut suspects that the black trainee is not competent, the white is going to move in more quickly to take control of the aircraft. It's a safety issue, but it impedes the black trainee from pushing beyond what he can already do. This is very subtle. This is difficult to pinpoint. This is not a stereotype that jumps out at you as some gross caricature, but it does reflect itself in behavior in a very nuanced way.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you're saying that whites have to be willing to take risks and live with them?
DAVID SHIPLER: I think so. They have to be willing to take risks, but also they have to be aware of their own images and how they operate. At the same time, I think many blacks need to give whites a little grace. You know, we're not all racists. And even if we say things that are stupid sometimes, it doesn't mean we're hateful. So there needs to be some room. We both have to give each other some room to make some mistakes, some honest mistakes. This is very difficult in a country that is so burdened by the history that we carry around with us.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, David Shipler, thank you for joining us.
DAVID SHIPLER: Thanks for having me, Charlayne.