- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

When two young men were walking toward me from the opposite direction on the sidewalk recently, my primary thought was the obvious one: move out of the way to avoid the head-on collision.

With his hands laced behind his neck and his elbows in the air, one of the young men slid toward me as I passed him, he lowered his right elbow and took a good whack at my chest. He did this because I’m white. Well, that was only partly it. I was walking with a friend, a black female. And he and his friend were black.

Though racism is often hard to spot definitively — motives are not always transparent — there was no doubt in my mind. Anger so clouded my thoughts that I was unaware of the physical pain till hours later.

Dealing with racism, however, is not an everyday occurrence for white folk, or even for many others of varying shades of brown, for that matter. But what would it be like to walk in the shoes of someone on the other side of the melanin divide? Such a question, though, is merely a hypothetical that can only be explored with speculation and imagination.

Until now.

On the cable television network FX (part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire), Wednesday night marked the premier of a new show called “Black. White.” The set-up is simple: two families, one black and one white, trade races. It is a “reality” show inasmuch as it involves real people and not actors, but a better label would be a “reality experiment.”

Eddie Murphy had explored this terrain — albeit in comedy sketches — more than two decades ago on Saturday Night Live. The black comedian went out in “white” make-up and while trying to buy a newspaper, the white store owner remarked, “What are you doing?… There’s nobody around. Go ahead, take it. Take it!” Only now, though, has make-up technology advanced to the point where people of African and European descents can credibly pass as members of a different race.

Even with the fairly impressive make-up jobs, the innovative premise of “Black. White.” could have been easily manipulated to fulfill white liberals’ dreams: a reality show staged to prove that whites are bigots, yet blacks are pure. Some whites encountered in public by the participants are laughably bigoted, but much of the six-episode series presents a more complicated picture, where most racism is unknowing, and the villains are not just white folk.

After viewing the first four episodes that were available for press screening, my advice is that this is something conservatives should watch and discuss. Yes, it is a reality TV show and suffers from many of the genre’s trappings. In particular, the editing was clearly done in such a way to highlight almost exclusively conflict between the families and, of course, the racial tension found when the participants ventured out in full make-up.

In perhaps the most fascinating scene, the white woman, Carmen Wurgel, visited a park in a black neighborhood as herself, but she went there with her boyfriend, Bruno, who was in full black make-up. Though the show almost certainly overplayed the tension through editing decisions, there was no denying the anger directed at what was believed to be a mixed-race couple. No one was even remotely close to violent — my experience was certainly rare — but hostility to interracial romance among blacks is not uncommon.

Given the utterly predictable casting that plagues most “reality” television, the white family could have been cretin conservatives. They weren’t. The white woman, in fact, is an unreformed 1960s era liberal — and she was astoundingly offensive time and again. She viewed black people as exotic, almost alien. That she romanticized almost every difference found in black people hardly made her prejudice more tolerable. But her racism is emblematic of the most pervasive form of bigotry; she harbored no animosity or hatred, just ignorance.

It was precisely this form of bias at which President Bush took a swipe during the 2000 presidential campaign, discussing the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The public education industry largely shaped by the left over the past several decades has become perhaps the most racist institution in America for the simple reason that less is expected of black children than their white peers. Look at the curriculum of any inner-city school for proof.

While “Black. White.” does not address diminished expectations head-on, it is, in fairness, only a TV show. It will not prove a transformational event in race relations. But it is worthy of discussion outside of the television context — as long as it is viewed with full knowledge of the editing wizard behind the curtain.

Discussion on race is never something from which conservatives should shy away. Racism has not vanished. It has diminished substantially, but it has also morphed. And though it presents a carefully crafted storyline, “Black. White.” is not a bad place to witness some of racism’s many permutations.

Joel Mowbray occasiomally writes for The Washington Times.

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