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THE CONSTANT WEIGHT OF SUBTLE RACISM

I wonder what you'd have thought if you'd seen Alonzo Jackson the day he was confronted by a clothing store security guard and accused of shoplifting a green plaid shirt. A shirt he was wearing at the time.

Would the event have registered with you, had you chanced to be in the Eddie Bauer clothing outlet in Prince George's County, Md., that day in October 1995?

I doubt it. Nothing unexpected in it, after all. Black kid caught trying to boost a shirt? Please. Happens all the time. It's poverty, don't you know. It's environment. Or maybe it's genetic.

The guard demanded that Jackson produce a receipt for the shirt and, when the teen-ager couldn't, confiscated the garment and sent him and two friends away. Jackson rummaged around at home, found his receipt -- he had purchased the shirt the day before -- went back and reclaimed his property.

No apology was made until after Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about the incident a month later. Even then, it was just one of those corporate image-menders, a written public statement from the president of the company. No one personally tendered Eddie Bauer's regrets to Jackson. Indeed, a spokesman claimed that, since the receipt Jackson presented in reclaiming his shirt was not itemized, the company had actually given him "the benefit of the doubt."

Jackson's $85 million civil suit, alleging that Eddie Bauer discriminates against black customers, went to trial Tuesday. Coincidentally, that was the same day experts told President Clinton and his racial advisory panel that contemporary racism is a subtle beast, a snake coiled in the breasts of people who believe themselves decent and just.

You'll forgive me if I note that there was nothing subtle about Abner Louima allegedly having a plunger shaft shoved into his rectum by a New York City police officer a few weeks ago, but for the most part, I agree with Clinton's experts. The battles of 30 years ago are over; a coalition of preachers, street soldiers, activists and idealists drove a stake through the heart of legal segregation and voter disenfranchisement. We have enlightenment now, we have achievement, we have Oprah Winfrey and Black Entertainment Television (BET).

But we also have to wonder why the result feels so little like "the Promised Land."

To answer with crime, absent fathers or any other dysfunction of the black urban poor is to miss the point of the question. Even to observe the subtlety of the new racism is to draw up short.

Consider instead what Ellis Cose wrote in his 1993 book, "The Rage of a Privileged Class": "For most blacks in America, regardless of status, political persuasion or accomplishments, the moment never arrives where race can be treated as a total irrelevancy."

Or, consider what Derald Wing Sue, a California psychology professor, told the president's panel: "People of color never are given an opportunity to rest in dealing with racism."

The key word in both observations is the same. Never an irrelevancy. Never a rest. Never.

Surely that's what Alonzo Jackson's father thought. Here's your son, a high school honor student living in what is generally regarded as the most affluent and best educated majority-black county in the country, coming home in his undershirt.

Living with "never" creates a fatigue you don't want to know, a heaviness borne in the marrow of bones. You find yourself tired of being tired, tired of being on guard, tired of always looking for the next blow, the next challenge, the next subtle, insidious reminder.

Tired of people who think you're imagining things.

What would they say if they had been there that day in '95? What would they say if they had seen perception and fact collide just a few miles from the American capital, where the Justice Department building bears the inscription: "Justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of its citizens."

Would they have questioned the state of justice in their own hearts and souls? Or would they have shrugged, secure in their own decency, as a shirtless brown teen-ager walked by?

Miami Herald

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