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  • A Country of Strangers
  • Written by David K. Shipler
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780679734543
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A Country of Strangers

Blacks and Whites in America

Written by David K. ShiplerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David K. Shipler

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A Country of Strangers is a magnificent exploration of the psychological landscape where blacks and whites meet. To tell the story in human rather than abstract terms, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David K. Shipler bypasses both extremists and celebrities and takes us among ordinary Americans as they encounter one another across racial lines.

We learn how blacks and whites see each other, how they interpret each other's behavior, and how certain damaging images and assumptions seep into the actions of even the most unbiased. We penetrate into dimensions of stereotyping and discrimination that are usually invisible, and discover the unseen prejudices and privileges of white Americans, and what black Americans make of them.

We explore the competing impulses of integration and separation: the reference points by which the races navigate as they venture out and then withdraw; the biculturalism that many blacks perfect as they move back and forth between the white and black worlds, and the homesickness some blacks feel for the comfort of all-black separateness. There are portrayals of interracial families and their multiracial children--expert guides through the clashes created by racial blending in America. We see how whites and blacks each carry the burden of our history.

Black-white stereotypes are dissected: the physical bodies that we see, the mental qualities we imagine, the moral character we attribute to others and to ourselves, the violence we fear, the power we seek or are loath to relinquish.

The book makes clear that we have the ability to shape our racial landscape--to reconstruct, even if not perfectly, the texture of our relationships. There is an assessment of the complexity confronting blacks and whites alike as they struggle to recognize and define the racial motivations that may or may not be present in a thought, a word, a deed. The book does not prescribe, but it documents the silences that prevail, the listening that doesn't happen, the conversations that don't take place. It looks at relations between minorities, including blacks and Jews, and blacks and Koreans. It explores the human dimensions of affirmative action, the intricate contacts and misunderstandings across racial lines among coworkers and neighbors. It is unstinting in its criticism of our society's failure to come to grips with bigotry; but it is also, happily, crowded with black people and white people who struggle in their daily lives to do just that.

A remarkable book that will stimulate each of us to reexamine and better understand our own deepest attitudes in regard to race in America.


Excerpt from chapter one


Together and Separate


When the lunch period begins, the lines dissolve in an instant of fluidity. The hallway rings cheerfully with raucous teenage slang in many tongues. A swirl of faces cascades through the corridor in a blurry kaleidoscope of colors and casts, a flood of continuous movement.

Suddenly the moment of motion is over. The hall is almost empty, the cafeteria full, the blending now fragmented and hardened into separateness. At the first long table inside the door, all the students are black. At the second, all are Russian, speaking Russian. The third is the Cambodian table, and the language is Khmer. In the far corner is another group of black students, some sitting, some standing. A couple of white tables are at the side. Integration is scattered only tentatively around the room: A black girl sits with an Asian girl, a black boy sits with a group of whites.

Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn has no single racial or ethnic majority, but rather an array of groups as extensive as at any school in the country. Its neighborhood, in the Midwood section not far from Coney Island, has New York's characteristic diversity: A kosher Chinese restaurant named Shalom Hunan stands a couple of blocks away on M Street. By all accounts, relationships among the students are fairly congenial, with markedly less friction than elsewhere. Yet the clustering is finely tuned, and the boundaries are clear enough that, one day, students in the Council of Unity, representing every ethnic organization at Murrow, wanted to draw me a map on the board to show where various kinds of people congregated before school, after school, and during free periods.

Andrea, who is half Dominican, drew four rectangles representing the four floors (although the school is H-shaped). Beginning on the first floor, she pointed to the area near room 140, where handicapped students gathered "because that's where the elevators are," she said. "Brown lockers is the Italian world. On the stairs, the Irish. Cafeteria, black people mostly, and Russians right here. And then you have people who don't speak English. Then a mixture, by the windows."

As she continued, she got a lot of help and argument from other students, who called out instructions on filling in the pieces of their ethnic geography.

"The Avenue L entrance, that's all African-American. By the music hall, rockers, a lot of rockers."

Then to the second floor: "Near room 240, WASP, prep, AP."

"That's white world," said Kim, an African-American girl in a yellow dress with black polka dots.

"All the theater people hang out together. They're not all white," countered another black girl.

"Two-forty is the assimilation place," Andrea explained. "In between 240 and 210--Asian," and she pointed to the middle of the hallway. The others weren't satisfied with the label "Asian," and under pressure Andrea changed it to "mixed."

"The second-floor bathroom is all black," said Kim. "I know 'cause that's where I am."

Then to the third floor: at the lower-left-hand corner, near room 340, Asians and some whites; near 310, mixed. "And again, by the bathroom, it's African-American," said Kim.

"I get so confused," Andrea complained. "I want to write down 'black,' but I don't want to offend anybody, so I write 'African-American,' and it takes so much more time."

When they got to the fourth floor, the students were shouting and arguing about someone's suggestion that African-Americans bunched themselves together in the middle with Hispanics around them.

"They're dark-skinned. They're Panamanian and Dominican. They're not African-American," one black girl insisted.

"They are!" shouted another. "I know them!"

Then the argument was cut short by the key question, posed by the adviser to the Council of Unity, a young white teacher named Joseph Zaza: "Do people of other races feel afraid to walk into those areas? Is there intimidation?"

They all said yes, but as the discussion progressed, it emerged that nothing was actually done to give them that uneasy sensation--no looks, no comments. It was just a feeling inside themselves, and "feel" was the operative word.

"I just don't feel comfortable, people looking at me."

"When you walk through a place, you feel out of place."

"It's just a feeling. Nobody says anything. Nobody looks in a certain way."

"Like a new kid on the block."

"It's your basic upbringing. You're going to feel intimidated by people you don't know."
David K. Shipler

About David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler - A Country of Strangers

Photo © Deborah I. Shipler

DAVID K. SHIPLER reported for The New York Times from 1966 to 1988 in New York, Saigon, Moscow, Jerusalem, and Washington, D.C. He is the author of six previous books, including the best sellers Russiaand The Working Poor, as well as Arab and Jew, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and has taught at Princeton, American University, and Dartmouth. He writes online at The Shipler Report.
David K. Shipler

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David K. Shipler - A Country of Strangers

Photo © Deborah I. Shipler


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