The first title from Andre Schiffrin's publishing house is a major, timely book for an election year. In Terkel's ( Hard Times ) well-established manner--he is one of the great interviewers--he encourages a wide range of Americans, black and white, to speak their minds about race with remarkable frankness, as well as about their perceptions of the Washington leadership. The resulting book is infinitely more informative than polls taken on such issues because the subjects are allowed to explore their thoughts, prejudices, hopes and fears. There is almost universal agreement among the blacks and white sympathizers interviewed that life looks darker for blacks now than it did 20 years ago. A strong commitment to civil rights, meaningful affirmative action and poverty programs and a social climate in which overt racism was unacceptable all apparently suffered during the Reagan years. And now the economic hardships that are also partly a legacy of that era are further polarizing American society in ways that are seldom discussed. As South African author Rian Malan tells Terkel, ``I think there's been an unhealthy trend in America for a long time not to discuss race. . . . I think airing prejudice could be healthy. . . . Race prejudice is something that thrives in ignorance.'' But optimism is hard to come by. Black psychologist Kenneth Clark states: ``I am not sanguine about any kind of solid decency and justice in the area of race in America. The best we can settle for is appearance.'' The immediacy with which the interviewees speak about their experiences brings a fine leavening of anecdotes and stories to the mix of opinions, from tales of run-ins with the police (``I don't know one black person who's never had an encounter with cops,'' says a young middle-class musician) to moments of surprising warmth and understanding, as when a former Klansman finds himself working as a union leader with his arch-enemy, a formidable black woman. The reader comes away with greatly expanded understanding of much recent American social history and a wish that more respondents could display the balance of the well-adjusted mixed couples whose testimonies end the book. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/30/1992 Release date: 04/01/1992 Genre: Nonfiction
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