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A White Man Tells All

By Frank Rich

173 pp., $5.95.

SO MANY things died or otherwise collapsed during the sixties that it is hard to keep track of them anymore. For instance, who noticed the quiet transformation of the phrase "civil rights" at the close of the decade? Civil rights -a password that once symbolized a whole mass of emotions, politics. tactics and humanitarian creeds. Civil rights - a movement, a march in the sunlight, a bundle of legislative acts promising a great society. Civil rights -goodbye to Bull Conner and all that. . . .

We still hear the term of course. Now we talk about the civil rights of white antiwar demonstrators who are swept off of Washington's streets by the Attorney General's conquering hordes, or of the civil rights of white radicals who are silenced by a fascist judge in Chicago, or of the civil rights of white Congressmen whose phones are bugged by the anonymous electricians of the FBI. This is all correct usage, but it's not the same as it used to be. For when a bunch of Black Panthers are gunned down in cold blood by white policemen, we no longer talk about civil rights being violated. There are other words for that sort of thing. There's been a lot of shit under the bridge-and whites and blacks alike no longer toss around the phrase "civil rights" when verbally confronting American racism.

Larry L. King, a 42-year-old white man, has written a remarkable and sad memoir that, within its autobiographical confines, also manages to explain why the liberal anti-racism crusade is no longer an ongoing enterprise in this country. The book. Confessions of a White Racist, is on one hand a white's story of what it is like to grow up in racist America; on the other, it is a chronicle of the death of the civil rights movement.

No white writer in modern times has ever attempted to deal with these sensitive issues so directly before. There is, after all. no percentage in describing one's own racism for all the world to see. But this is what King has done, and, in his scrupulous avoidance of presenting himself as a liberal-guilt figure, he has done it with dignity.

THE BOOK is divided into five sections that span the chronology of the author's life. The first three of these could aptly be called "pre-liberal," the fourth "liberal" and the last "post-liberal." Together they make up a story of education followed by de-education-and, in this respect, Confessions is very much within the established genre of modern American autobiography as set forth earlier in this century by Henry Adams and Lincoln Steffens. Yet, King's work seems considerably more honest than that of many of his predecessors.

In the first sections, for example, he documents with a coldly appraising journalistic eye the indecencies and fantasies of a white boy brought up under the principles of racism. It is like Black Boy or Soul on Ice being told from the other side. And, while King was brought up in western Texas, his early experiences with the black man seem not unlike those of most whites brought up in racially sheltered American cities and towns. King does not let himself off by merely going through the ritual of describing his first contacts with blacks, his textbook injustices to them and his first realization that blacks could be as intelligent as white folks. All that is here (and vividly set down)-but so are the sexual fantasies (Lena Horne, a black whore) and the methods used to profit off of racism (e.g., falsely playing up an affection for blacks to a bigoted farmer so that the farmer would kill his daughter's plans to trap the unwilling King in marriage). King also accounts for the embarrassing liberal gestures with which he at first tried to ingratiate himself with blacks. In this category of self-revelation the author supplies a number of chilling documentary anecdotes: how, as an Army officer in the late forties, he risked the wrath of the law by bringing a black prisoner with him into the white club car. only to discover in amazement that the black would rather have "rode with [his] own people"; how, sick in an army infirmary, he good-naturedly told a solicitous black orderly that he guessed his civilian profession to be a porter, only to be told by the black that he was a clergyman; how he extended a black family courtesy at a southern roadside store only to discover that he had given the local crackers an excuse to brutalize the objects of his own liberal tolerance.

KING'S personal reporting, of course, is always blended in to the larger framework: the rich social detail and history of his generation and environments. Interwoven with the confessions are the harsh facts of the repressive policies of the pre-Korea army he served in, the small town Chamber-of-Commerce-controlled newspapers he worked for, the college he briefly attended, the government he eventually became a part of. It was only as an administrative assistant to a couple of Texas congressmen that King completed his development as a civil rights liberal. In the Nation's Capital, he came across the gruesome inequities of a black-majority city run by white demagogues, and he sampled the ill-conceived hypocrisy of congressmen who gave lip-service to liberal views. As a result, King began, for the first time, to listen seriously to blacks-and to argue with racist friends (who soon disowned him).

His liberal armor complete, King went on to discover that it would prove to be worthless. In the last section of Confessions he witnesses the events of Watts and Memphis and reads the writing on the wall: the dream of civil rights was a dream after all. The author realizes his skill at self-delusion and acknowledges his long-repressed fears. Come the Washington riots, he sleeps "with a Billy club fashioned from a broomstick and a wicked butcher knife next to his bed."

THE CLIMAX of the book unfolds at Harvard, where King came as a Nieman Fellow last year. Here he hoped to find a non-racist civilization as well as an intellectual community with an edge on solutions to the problems that bedevil the masses outside. Needless to say, King found nothing of the sort. In a few pages, he sets down enough evidence to shock all but the most cynical (or most aware) of the ten thousand white men of Harvard. King reveals scenes in the Faculty Club, in a Dean's house, and in the lecture hall that rival any pictures we might have of the unreconstructed South. (Typical of these incidents is an ugly exchange in which a prominent law professor assails the intellectual credentials of the head of the Afro-American Studies Department.) No wonder, when King returns to Washington, he feels that by June 1970, "black hopes had crashed to their lowest point in a decade" and that "logic dictates that a racial Armageddon awaits the American future." As he quotes Roger Wilkins, "In places where it counts, America is a white country."

Who's going to disagree? I don't know a single white at this university, myself included, who currently has a close friend who is black. Nor is it any longer our choice, as whites, to make first moves. That time has come and gone. Ominous as this situation may be, King points out it is also justifiable from any decent emotional, historical, or political perspective. Whites no longer hod the cards, and they no longer have the right to hold them. "White 'liberals,'" he writes, "who once marched and sang for black freedoms. . . tend to feel betrayed and sorry for themselves now that a large part of the black community rejects them." Well, it's tough shit and we'll all have to find the best ways we can to eat it without making guilt-ridden or self-pitying spectacles of ourselves.

It is Larry King's achievement that he has so unsparingly documented how we got ourselves to this sorry point in history. Confessions of a White Racist is, to be sure, no picnic. It's a terrifying and gutsy first report from the white camp during this, our second Civil War.

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