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Seeing Beyond The Color Barrier

I'M a German-born American who has lived in Geneva for 28 years. Letters and the news media help me keep informed about developments in my former home, the United States. But nothing can take the place of a visit.

On my most recent trip back last October, the O.J. Simpson trial caught my attention. Simpson, the black football star, had just been acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife and her companion, who were both white.

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Reaction to the verdict seemed racially charged. Blacks were reported to be jubilant that one of "theirs" had triumphed over the system, while most white people felt the evidence proved Simpson's guilt. Media coverage highlighted the great gulf between the groups and underscored the ominous outlook for relations between black and white communities.

The whole situation was unsettling for me because I was about to embark on a month of travel including several metropolises with large black populations. What might happen if the interracial tensions really were on the increase, I wondered.

My uncertainty brought to mind an incident that happened more than 30 years ago, when I lived in Baltimore. Black people were by then integrated into professional work with white colleagues. But social interaction was not yet tolerated to the same extent - not in this city that was so Southern in many respects. Still, I invited a black colleague whom I liked very much to visit me at home, in a segregated neighborhood. Shortly after my friend arrived, I was called to the phone.

"What do you think you're doing over there?" an unfamiliar voice demanded.

My armpits grew moist; my mouth went dry. "What number are you calling?" I finally managed to ask.

"Oh, you're not Jean," the woman said. "Sorry about the mistake." There was a click as the receiver went down at the other end. My hand shook, replacing the one this end. The colleague's visit passed agreeably without any further interruptions.

Now, years later, I can still recall the unease of that moment when it seemed that I might be engaging in an activity not yet condoned in my neighborhood. I prayed we weren't back to that in 1995.

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But even with the Simpson verdict, race relations in Baltimore seemed to be better than in previous years. Whenever I found myself in places where all the other people were black, there was neither obsequiousness nor hostility; I fit in like everyone else. This reassured me.

The same thing was true in Washington. One incident stands out. At the museum gift shop of the National Geographic Society, I noticed two classes of elementary schoolchildren, all black, with their teachers. I was sitting on a bench near the exit, waiting for my friend to finish paying for his purchases. The two classes began to assemble by the door. Some of the children came to the bench and sat down. The boy next to me must have been about nine years old, the age of my older grandson. Like my grandson's, his round head was covered by close-cropped hair, but black and wiry instead of blond. He heaved a sigh.

"Feels good to sit down, doesn't it?" I smiled at him.

He grinned. "Sure does." Another loud sigh. "Waitin' in them long lines."

"How do you like the museum?"

"It's real neat." His voice was enthusiastic. "All them explorers. Lots of 'em real brave."

"Have you seen any of the videos? What are they about?"

"Oh yeah! The one about all them different kinds of camouflage, that's super."

"I'm glad. I bought it for my grandsons. Now I'm sure they'll like it." We grinned at each other like old friends.

The teacher called the boy's class together. He got up.

"So long," he said, and I replied, "Bye," thinking they were a very orderly group, no pushing or shoving. They must have a good teacher.

My friend and I found the M Street Deli and ate at one of the outdoor tables. Then we set off in the direction of the White House, getting as far as Farragut Park.

"Look, I can't walk any farther," I said. "You go on, and I'll wait here on a bench."

Lots of people, all ages, all colors, populated the park that balmy noon in October. I spotted a place on a bench at some distance away, and started down the path.

"Hi!" I heard from behind me. The boy from the museum sat on a bench with two of his buddies and smiled at me. Their class was picnicking in the park.

"Hi!" I called back, waving.

From my bench I watched the group. Children who had finished lunch were kicking a soccer ball about, but carefully, so as not to jostle passersby.

Suddenly, I felt deeply hopeful. The old unease was gone. We were all part of a colorful puzzle.

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