If there's a more paranoid, disingenuous and bigoted book than Carl Rowan's "The Coming Race War in America" on the shelves of bookstores today, I haven't seen it.
Rowan might be a nationally syndicated columnist , a former advisor to President Johnson and the one-time director of the United States Information Agency, but his book reads as if it were written in an underground bunker next to an over stoked furnace.
"Racism has not been as virulent throughout America since the Civil War," writes Rowan. A growing paranoia and resentment among whites is bringing out the white community's historic, deep-rooted propensity for violence. Sooner or later, he contends, whites will provoke the black community one too many times whereupon "proud and angry" blacks, aggravated beyond all endurance, will erupt in understandable rage, leaving the cities in flames and the streets awash in blood.
Lest anyone think the black community isn't capable of fighting such a civil war, Rowan asks white Americans to consider what could happen if just 1,000 enraged blacks allied themselves with foreign terrorists. "There are now five million or more Muslims living in the United States," write Rowan. "We would be fools to assume that they will listen only to moderate black pacifists." Rowan takes pains to point out that he isn't saying that blacks will start the problem—"black involvement in a race war will be largely reactive." The real problem will be the "crazy, violent, paranoid white men" who, in Rowan's view, are furious, embittered and sexually threatened, by all the progress blacks have made over the last 30 years, including, as in the case of O.J. Simpson, the right to sleep with white women. The children of baby boomers are worst of all, says Rowan. They've swallowed all the stereotypes about blacks. Only a few white people—skinheads and Klansmen—admit to being racists. "But corporate boardrooms, local governments, education districts, are full of powerful men and women who are virulent bigots but will become stridently indignant and threaten to sue if someone calls them a racist." As proof of his contention that white society is seething with anti-black sentiment, he recalls what seems to be every racial incident of the last 30 years. He points to groups like the Freemen, the Aryan Nation, the various militia groups around the country and to a racist tract called the "Turner Diaries" to prove that a vicious violent para-military mentality is overtaking white America. I've never read the Turner Diaries. I doubt that most Americans have even heard of the book, let alone read it. But from the way and the number of times Rowan talks about the book's influence it’s apparent he thinks this is the kind of required reading that white America keeps on its bed stand for reading every night. It's this kind of illusory thinking (or deliberate distortion) that makes this book so frustrating to read. Rowan repeated throws out some anecdotal examples of racism and then acts as if such incidents are both ubiquitous and secretly applauded by every white person in the country. He points, for instance, to a few cases of soldiers in the US. Army who were found with swastikas in their barracks or who belonged to white supremacist organizations and all of a sudden, in his view, the entire army is seething with racists and racist writings which, he disdainfully notes, the Secretary of the Army, inexplicably refuses to crack down on out of some misguided deference to the soldiers' First Amendment rights. In fact, when it comes to overcoming institutional racism, the U.S. Army is one organization Rowan would deeply admire. "The Army ... enjoys far better race relations than any other major social institution in the country," says Thomas E. Ricks, the Wall Street Journal's Pentagon reporter. "The 18,200 black officers in the armed forces . . . form the largest group of black executives in the country. The Army ... is the only place in America where blacks routinely boss around whites." What does Carl Rowan think of all this? He doesn’t say. I wonder if he’s even aware of it. To him, apparently, there are so neo-Nazi white supremacists in the army the few black officers are hanging on by their fingernails. Rowan no doubt considers himself a logical thinking. But there is very little reason in this book.. Whenever white people do something that suggests they are really not irremediably racist after all he interprets the facts so as to discover racist motives anyway. At one point he lists all the major cities that have had black mayors—Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans. Now to most people such a list would seem to indicate that whites couldn't be the unregenerate racists that Rowan thinks they are—otherwise they wouldn't go around electing black men as mayors in so many big cities. But not to Rowan. To him, this long list of black mayors is only another "damning story of the indelible curse of racism. It was only when the cities were watching their tax bases erode as affluent whites and some privileged blacks fled to suburbs, urban crime rates began to soar, and the public schools were falling into disrepair that the white power structure said: 'Okay, let's turn this mess over to a black mayor. And let him have a black police chief and a black superintendent of schools. Let them wrestle with the fucking problem!'" Rowan at some level must be aware of how he consistently stands the truth on his head for he spends an entire chapter attempting to explain why, if whites are so racist, so many of them wanted Colin Powell to be our next president. Rowan's answer? Well, whites didn’t want Powell for president. Everyone knows whites never tell the truth to pollsters when it comes to race, says Rowan. In fact, he maintains, when whites get in the polling booth and are faced with the actual prospect of voting for a black man, their arms get "muscle spasms." "Rigor mortis" sets in. Powell never had a prayer of getting the nomination. For starters, the "bedrock supporters of the GOP" would not have "tolerate[d]" it. And in any case, "the other candidates would never step aside and let Powell be drafted." For someone who writes a column on public policy, Rowan seems to be astonishingly misinformed about the nomination process. Why on earth should the Republican candidates have stepped aside in favor of Colin Powell, or anyone else for that matter? If Powell wanted to be president, he could have done what every other candidate did—throw his hat in the ring, put together an organization, raise money, and go from state to state offering his views for the voters’ inspection. If he'd done that and won enough states, it wouldn't matter whether the other candidates were willing to "step aside" for him or not—he'd have won the nomination going away. One has the sense in reading this book of a truly second-class mind, hard at work, in well over its head. Although some parts of the book are written in the dispassionate style of a seasoned reporter (making me wonder if Rowan had help there), more typically the book reads as if it had been pounded out by some hotshot junior college journalism major intoxicated with the cheap thrills of reading his own opinions expressed as fact. He inexplicably puts quotation marks around words where none are needed and who repeatedly drags out favorite words like "fetid" and "spewing." (conservatives don't talk—they only "spew.") With the fervent self-regard of a natural-born hack Rowan tells us about his "marvelous," career, his "best selling books," his many awards and the influential weight his columns carry in corridors of power. He regularly quotes from his own interviews with famous and powerful people, sometimes adding for our special admiration that he obtained the information in an "exclusive interview." Rowan apparently has spent most of his long career in Washington or writing about it, but such experience apparently hasn't done him much good—his world view seems frozen in the rural south sometime in the thirties. He argues that for the "overwhelming mass of black people" little has changed in the last 30 years. In the meantime, he ignores all the real progress that blacks have made—if they were a nation they'd be the 12th or 13th richest in the world; black college professors routinely earn more than comparably situated whites; the median family income of married black couples who both work is higher than that of white couples. Blacks have been elected and or appointed to every office in the land with the exception of president and vice president. They are worshipped as national heroes on athletic fields and on the stage. Most of the highest paid athletes and the highest earning television entertainer (Oprah Winfrey) are black. But to hear Rowan tell it, black Americans are lucky to be able to get a two-bit job, drink out of public water fountains, or go to bed without fear of white militias sweeping down out of hills of Idaho and Montana to incite the next race war. In his view whites are paranoid, resentful, and most of all perhaps, humiliated, by their sexual inadequacies in comparison to what Rowan calls the "allegedly 'massive'" black penis. Rowan's penis fixation is both astonishing and egregiously in error. He qualifies the notion of the "massive" black penis with the word allegedly, suggesting he has doubts about it himself. But then he turns around and asserts that white women are dying for it. And that's what makes white men so mad. White males, he asserts, have been driven livid all their lives by what he is an old "schoolgirl chant: 'Once you go black, you'll never go back.'" That’s how he knew, he says, as soon as he heard that O.J. Simpson was a suspect in the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, there was trouble ahead for blacks. "The O.J. Simpson trial unleashed racial passions deeper than any in America since the War," writes Rowan. "[It] grabbed [white] Americans by their throats, their gonads, what was left of their brains and immersed them in spasms of anger and hatred." Some people might think that interracial marriage had become so commonplace that white men no longer flew into a jealous rage when a "Caucasian woman gave her body, even her love, to a black man," writes Rowan. "But I knew better." Although Rowan expresses deep anger at the way white society shunned Simpson after his acquittal (the man was found "not guilty," complains Rowan), Rowan couldn't be more vicious in his depiction of Nicole. After first meeting O.J. at a Hollywood club, Nicole went to bed with Simpson, writes Rowan, even though "he was married, and she knew it." This is vintage duplicitous Rowan. When a famous and charismatic married athlete and a single teenage girl make love, the girl's a slut while Simpson is a victim. He later describes Nicole as the kind of person "black people would in private [call] 'white trash,' using her blond hair, her big breasts, her teenage pussy to woo a famous, rich middle-aged black man away from the black woman who had sustained and nurtured him through the toughest years of his life." Teenage pussy? Where does Rowan get off talking doubt white women this way. If you want to talk about sluts, Rowan’s mind is the place to begin. I have to think he was drunk when he wrote this. Surely his editor wouldn’t let him say this. Where was he? What about his wife? His intern? Although Rowan assures us all through the book that a race war is near inevitable, he does a poor job of convincing the reader. In fact, by the time you get to the final chapter it's hard to believe that Rowan even believes it himself. All these dire predictions really serve as the justification for something else entirely. Rowan spells out what that might be in the final chapter. And it's about what we might have expected from someone who was the director of the US Information agency during the Johnson Administration and who remembers fondly all those times sitting in Johnson's office, drinking Chevas Regal and listing to the president tell stories about his early days as a poor boy in Texas. What Rowan really wants, it seems, is a return to The Great Society, or if you will, "Great Society II"—early and massive interventions" in the lives of black children, a renewed federal commitment to education, new public housing but this time not in projects but scattered in private residential areas, revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps as an alternative to putting "virile" young black men in prison, reform of mandatory sentencing laws, expanded welfare, a re-commitment of the country to affirmative action and white acknowledgment of "the validity of black rage." Finally, to reduce the danger of racist right wing reactionaries provoking the black underclass to violence, there has to be, writes Rowan, a "mandatory disarmament program of colossal magnitude" accompanied by FBI monitoring of these groups with "infiltrations, buggings, wiretaps, and inspections of bank accounts," and other "tactics that would break a civil libertarian's heart." Rowan is aware that his call for "mandatory disarmament" might strike some people a bit hypocritical, given his arrest in 1988 for gratuitously shooting a white teenager who had been skinny-dipping in his swimming pool, but, he says, with the kind of woefully muddled reasoning the book is riddled with, he always has been and still is in favor of gun control. The only reason he had a gun that night was that his son, a former FBI agent, gave it to him. But that doesn't mean he was a gun owner, he protests. "I have never owned a gun personally." As I see it, there are three reasons Rowan might have written wrote a bigoted mean-spirited disingenuous book like this—to generate support for massive new government spending, to smite his enemies and to make a big enough splash to revive his rapidly fading career. Well, he did smite his enemies. You have to give him that. # _