Jews, blacks still feel like victims, former Times reporter says in S.F.

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Why have relations between Jews and African-Americans approached combustion levels?

"When you put two victims together — it's like mixing fire and kerosene," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler.

The former New York Times reporter discussed "Bridging the Racial Divide" Monday at a Jewish Community Relations Council event in San Francisco.

Blacks, he said, still cannot see how the Holocaust continues hurting today's Jews. At the same time, blacks view continued discrimination as the legacy of slavery.

Blacks don't want to see themselves outdone in suffering by other groups, particularly whites, Shipler told an audience of 70 at the Commonwealth Club of California.

The writer, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., was in the Bay Area to discuss his new book, "A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America." A former Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Shipler also worked in Saigon and Moscow. He is also the author of "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land" and "Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams."

Shipler, who is not Jewish, blasted Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's accusations that Jews masterminded the slave trade, calling it "an assessment that's ridiculous." Instead, he said Jews have put more energy into advancing black causes than any other white group, only to see themselves as being paid back with hate.

"Many Jews are deeply hurt and offended by black anti-Semitism," Shipler said.

Americans, he said, expect overnight solutions to black-white issues, just as they expect quick remedies to the Middle East crisis. But no such panaceas exist.

One of the reasons is that the roots of racism are inexplicable, he said. Undercurrents of prejudice often exist below the surface among people who view themselves as tolerant.

However, he also stressed that in a politically charged climate, it is easy to misinterpret words and events as racist.

He recalled the story of a black news reporter who was invited to a yacht party where the guests were asked to remove their shoes before boarding. As the boat cruised out to sea, the black reporter noticed that many of the white guests received slippers while black guests remained shoeless.

Disturbed by this, the reporter asked the attendant why some people received slippers while others did not. The attendant said the slippers were for those guests who had holes in their socks.

After the audience laughed, Shipler said the reporter was mistaken on the particulars but correct on the wider issue: Racism is still alive.

Shipler, who wrote for the New York Times for more than 20 years, first became interested in America's race relations after he heard Martin Luther King Jr. reveal that his daughter was denied admission into an amusement park because of her color.

Although today, such blatant bigotry is illegal, the undercurrents of prejudice remain.

"Racism is encoded and encrypted," Shipler said.

But he views legislation as the crudest of remedies, instead suggesting person-to-person remedies, such as diversity training.

He also blamed the media for increasing tensions between blacks and whites.

"There are an awful lot of good people in this country who don't get into the press," Shipler said. "Attention goes to most strident and extreme people."

The writer said the media should cover more stories on groups that further black-white dialogue.

"Whites do not dislike blacks," Shipler said. "The images and stereotypes is what they dislike."