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Racial Hatred Or Just Personal

Published Sunday, November 18, 2001

Is it racial hatred or just personal?

The instigating issue couldn't have been more inconsequential: A bowler on my lane demonstratively expressed his displeasure after a miss, and a bowler on an adjoining lane vocally took exception.

A testosterone-drenched shouting match ensued: Posturing, taunts, loud invitations to fight. The principals never got close enough to throw any punches; other league members interposed themselves, and the matter soon cooled off on its own accord.

But the brief outbreak of belligerence last week was an object lesson in how basic human nature can frustrate positive race relations.

Don't jump to a wrong conclusion: Both parties in the shouting match were white. No issue of race was raised.

Later, though, I wondered: What if they hadn't been of the same race? Would it have become a Racial Incident?

At the height of the clash, one fellow crafted an insult based on the fact that the other wears his hair in a ponytail. A distinguishing characteristic thus became a put-down.

That's how we humans are: When angered, we instinctively lash out to injure the other party. Verbally, that usually means an insult. And the easiest insults are based on distinctive physical characteristics.

I don't for a moment believe the fellow harbors deep-seated hatred of all men with ponytails, despite his comment. His manly honor had been violated by the other guy's uninvited commentary, I surmised, compelling the first to make a stand.

MISINTERPRETATIONS

Are some cases of perceived racism merely personal conflicts misread as something more sinister? It may happen more than we realize.

Insults can be based on any characteristic: height, weight, disability, age, gender -- even hairstyle. Race often is the handiest distinction, and the most socially sensitive. It's hard -- if not impossible -- to tell if hostility is rooted in general hatred of the characteristic, or if it's only a personal matter cloaked in a racial disguise.

I've participated in two forums, including one Friday, presented by the National Conference for Community and Justice regarding its 2000 survey of intergroup relations called Taking America's Pulse II.

While many indices of racial attitudes have improved since the group's first survey in 1993, the new poll produced some bleak findings. One was that 42 percent of black Americans say they experienced an episode of discrimination in the prior month, compared to 16 percent of Hispanics and 13 percent of whites.

'SIX-SEVENTHS RULE'

This is a difficult statistic to interpret. One explanation could be what I've coined my ''six-sevenths rule'': Black Americans comprise roughly one-seventh of the U.S. population. That means six of every seven people a black American meets will be white, ignoring, for the moment, other racial categories. But only one in seven people a white American meets will be black -- suggesting a black person is six times more likely than a white person to have a racial clash.

In addition, experience most strongly shapes perceptions. If, say, 10 percent of all white people were actively racist, the other 90 percent would never experience it, and might erroneously conclude it doesn't exist. But nearly every black person, sooner or later, would encounter that 10 percent, and be convinced racism exists.

Finally, the bowling alley squabble suggests that certain conflicts interpreted as racially motivated may, in reality, be personal. The insulting party may know in his heart that he harbors no generalized group hostility -- but the insulted party has no way to know that, and interprets the worst.

I hope the two bowlers soon will shake hands and laugh off the whole silly matter. Yet the difficulty of even this minor reconcilement makes one appreciate the enormous task of easing the interethnic tensions stressing our community and world.

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