December 1992By Michelle Bobier
Michelle Bobier is a Chicago writer. Her work has appeared in The American Scholar, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession. By Studs Terkel. The New Press. 403 pages. $24.95.
All Studs Terkels books consist of many voices. Each work allows people to talk about themselves and their lives in contexts ranging from jobs (Working) to World War II (The Good War) to the Great Depression (Hard Times). The sole exception is Terkels memoir; but even that books title, Talking to Myself, exemplifies the authors dedication to the art of speech and the oral history that, if someone like Studs Terkel is around, can result.
Race is part of that tradition. The book lets us hear the voices of diverse people: black, white, and other; men, women, and children; single people and couples; Ph.D.s, factory workers, and the unemployed; rich, poor, and in between.
For the most part those featured in the book are Chicagoans. That seems appropriate, for race is a continuous, overriding concern in this city, in I which have lived since 1975. Though some Chicago neighborhoods are racially and ethnically mixed, the projects on the south and west sides stand in sharp relief against the wealthy, virtually all white North Shore suburbs; even some working-class communities in the city are all black or all white.
In other words, de facto segregation is commonplace; this is a deeply divided city. (I was made exceptionally aware of that many years ago when I left the downtown area one day and inadvertently got on the elevated train going south, eventually winding up in a desperately poor black neighborhood, seemingly the only white person for miles around.) A friend of mine who moved here from Seattle four or five years ago says that he has never been in such a racially polarized, angry place. That thought is echoed again and again in Race; as Maria Torres, a political science teacher at one of the citys colleges, notes in the book, Everything in this city is cast in terms of race.
As might be expected, such a charged atmosphere engenders passionate convictions. One theme that recurs throughout Race is that racism has become more open and more socially acceptable in Chicago, and in America, over the course of the past decade. Bob Matthieson, a publisher, notes that, since Reagan, the gap between the races has widened. White rage has become chic in some cases. Hatred for black people has been made socially acceptable in a surprising number of places. We see whats been cropping up on college campuses. Racism has been legitimized. On the other hand, another recurrent sentiment is that economics is at least as potent a factor as racism. Paramedic-in-training Chris Daniels says, You know, I dont think the racial tension is getting worse, I think people are gettin fed up with the way things are divided. Yeah, the poor black is gettin it in the neck, but what about the poor white? Some, like retired social worker Eileen Barth, believe that race relations in America are actually improving. But others disagree.
One of the most striking things about Race is how extraordinarily well-meaning nearly all the people quoted seem to be. Many of the white people interviewed earnestly attempt to understand, as far as they are able, how racism affects blacks; many of the black people have deliberately resisted the temptation to use the injustices they have suffered as an excuse to hate whites. Some of those quoted kick themselves for it. Terkel evidently didnt interview the guy across the street from me who left a note on one of my black neighbors cars saying, Nigger, dont park here; park in front of your own house. Wouldnt it have been instructive, if perhaps unsavory, to see some of these peoples actual thought processes played out? If the interviews in Race were truly representative of Americans attitudes, we would scarcely have the racial problems we have.
This caveat aside, Race is a thought-provoking, stimulating, sad, hopeful, fascinating book. There is a certain hypnotic magic in hearing people talk, in their own voices, about issues that matter to them and in America, race is one of the things that matter most.