When I was a kid in the 1970s, most liberal-minded adults, in order to make sure you knew that they harbored no racial prejudices, often went out of their way to say what they thought were kind things about minorities – which actually revealed just the opposite. So, for example, after watching a television interview of the great professional basketball star Julius Erving (aka “Dr. J.”), one of my father’s friends exclaimed, “That Dr. J is a real class act. He is so well spoken.”For those of us in the room under thirty, this was cringe-inducing, even though we knew that the man who uttered that statement considered his comments a sign of sophistication on matters racial, that he thought of himself as an enlightened progressive mystically harmonizing with the Youngbloods, “C’mon people now. Smile on your brother. Ev’rybody get together. Try and love one another right now.”
His heart, of course, was in the right place. But the assumptions that gave rise to his observations about Dr. J. – that black people are not by nature classy or articulate – show that he in fact harbored racial prejudices, however generous his affections toward his African-American neighbors may have been. My peers and I cringed because of a truth about human conversation that we often do not admit: what is communicated in speech is often shaped less by what is said than what is not said.