In the early '90s, law professor and writer Derrick Bell used one of his allegorical social commentaries to put forth the "Racial Preference Licensing Act."
In the story, a president who was a hardheaded realist signed legislation that would legalize discrimination on the theory that government couldn't change hearts or get rid of something so deeply ingrained in some Americans.
Instead, what government could do was end the charade. It could put a heavy tax on any business owner who wanted to come out of the closet, buy the license and openly discriminate. Then government could put the license-fee and tax revenues into programs for African-Americans.
It would be your proverbial win-win situation.
That story comes to mind in the wake of the latest allegations that Cheektowaga and the Walden Galleria haven't changed much since Cynthia Wiggins died there five years ago. The young mother was killed crossing a busy street to get to work in the Galleria after her bus from Buffalo's black community was barred from the suburban mall's property.
The Galleria's owners paid a $2.55 million "tax" in the wake of the lawsuit that resulted -- except that they called it a civil settlement.
And now, according to some blacks who shop there, mall tenants and security guards keep doing the same old things, as if the payment was just the cost of doing business -- just a variation on Bell's racial-preference licensing tax.
Blacks among the overflow crowd at the Town Board meeting the other night also would include some Cheektowaga cops in that social indictment. This despite what seem like the genuine efforts of a progressive police chief and the dismay of white residents who backed the black leaders' quest for justice.
Which brings us back to the solution offered by Bell's fictional president. It's a basic tenet of economic theory that if you want less of something, you slap a tax on it. And if you want even less after that, you raise the tax.
So maybe Cheektowaga residents need to start thinking about it like that. The $2.55 million forked over by mall owner Pyramid Cos. didn't seem to have much of an impact, so aggrieved blacks are now going to try to increase the levy with more lawsuits. And guess who ultimately pays?
"The meetings and the dialogues are fine," says attorney Roland Cercone, who has filed two such cases. "But sometimes hitting them in the pocket is the best way to bring about change."
The first two suits are on behalf of a 70-year-old woman and a 23-year-old college student stopped by town cops on flimsy charges -- such as coming to a stop past the white pavement line. How bogus were the original charges? Even two judges being targeted by the NAACP saw fit to throw them out.
Those cops no doubt thought they had a "license" to make those kinds of stops, but they hadn't paid the fee. Now town residents might have to.
And that's what gives me hope. Even as town officials and fed-up blacks prepare for another round of discussions -- just like the ones five years ago -- what gives me hope is that as the price of discrimination gets higher, sooner or later more people will realize they're all paying the bill.
Does anybody really think Pyramid's stockholders paid the Wiggins settlement? I'd bet my last bus token that, in one way or another, the cost got passed along in the leases the company charges owners of mall stores. And those lease costs get passed along in the prices that stores charge their customers. All Galleria shoppers pay.
And if these latest suits result in massive claims against the town, everyone in Cheektowaga will pay. You can bet the money won't come from the guilty cops or a Police Department pay cut.
No, it will come from taxpayers, either directly if the town is self-insured or indirectly through higher premiums if insurance kicks in. Either way, taxpayers -- even the good ones -- will get saddled with the bill for bigotry.
Maybe, as soon as enough of the taxpayers think about it like that, there will be enough pressure to really change things. After all, this is one "tax" that most of them should want to see repealed.