7

I ran across this in a science fiction anthology. The book may have had a sociological/political theme. I think I read it somewhere around the late 1990s, but I also think the book was a hardback I found in a library; something that had probably been sitting on the shelf for many years before I came along.

I remember the plot pretty well, but nothing about the title or author. This was projecting a possible future, but you might call it "sociological science fiction," rather than the type of SF story that emphasizes futuristic technology such as FTL drives or Artificial Intelligence.

Plot Points

  1. The protagonist is a young black man walking through the streets of New York City as we first meet him. (Probably somewhere in Manhattan.) He is the third-person viewpoint character throughout the story; we never see anyone else's thoughts. He is full of resentment toward how white people have historically treated black people, although -- as we soon realize -- it is now a fairly rare event to actually see a Caucasian person anywhere on those streets. The only permanent residents in the city are people with Black African heritage. The white people (and everyone else who wasn't black, I gathered) all packed up and left at least a few years ago. I don't remember if we were given details of just how this had been achieved, but apparently the U.S. Congress and everyone else agreed that it was legal.

  2. The protagonist decides to rob a white male tourist whom he encounters. At first, I think the protagonist is at his most charming so he can get in close. I'm not sure whether things got violent -- such as punching the tourist to soften him up -- but the intention was to somehow obtain the tourist's wallet, and perhaps some other valuables. (A nice watch, for instance? I'm not sure.)

  3. However, the protagonist has scarcely gotten his hands on the tourist's wallet before he is arrested by local cops who are as African-American as he is. He is taken . . . somewhere. I'm not sure if it was a police station, or an office in City Hall, or what, but he ends up sitting in the same room with an old friend of his who now has some sort of fairly important government job. Not the Mayor or the Police Commissioner, but perhaps some sort of aide to one of them. The friend wants to explain certain facts of life to the protagonist. (Such as why he's going to be tried and convicted and locked up for a while.)

  4. The rest of the story is a lengthy conversation between these two, with the better-educated friend explaining his thoughts about what has changed since all the white people left town, and what it means for the future, etc. For instance, the protagonist may have been thinking of white tourists as "fair game," and perhaps thinking that dark-skinned cops should automatically side with the black man over the white man in a dispute about an alleged crime (as opposed to what supposedly happened back in the days when most NYPD cops were white) -- but it just doesn't work that way. For one thing, New York City's economy still needs tourism dollars, and that works better if outsiders aren't terrified at the thought of visiting the place to look at the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station and the other famous landmarks.

  5. The friend also states that sure, some people in the city still have far more money and influence than others -- big surprise! -- but now this doesn't reflect a racial divide. If you pay rent, you pay it to a black landlord. You go looking for a new job? You're trying to convince a black employer to give a fellow black man a chance. You buy something? A black shopkeeper gets the money. Your property taxes go up? It was an all-black city council that voted to do that. At long last, there is truly a level playing field where you (assuming you are a typical black resident of NYC) won't be discriminated against as you try to improve your socioeconomic situation. And if you fail, it won't be nearly so easy to say it was sheer racism that kept you down despite your best efforts.

  6. At one point, the protagonist says, "I've never heard anybody tell it that way before," and the wise friend says: "Of course you haven't. Ain't no politician going to get reelected by telling the voters everything is fine in Black New York." (This dialogue is not word-for-word; just the best I can do.) The implication is that people running for public office, locally, will continue to blame white people (the former authority figures in the city, and/or those still running things elsewhere in the USA) for all possible problems -- but most of the candidates know they are just spouting empty rhetoric at this point, with a lot less substance behind it than there used to be. (But the naive protagonist took it all at face value.)

Anyway, that's the story. Does anyone think it sounds familiar?

10

"Black Is Beautiful", a 1970 short story by Robert Silverberg; originally published in The Year 2000, an anthology of new stories edited by Harry Harrison.

Comments from Majipoor.com:

A lot of people seem to think that the races can't get along and never will, so what we need to do is live apart. In this future, “White flight” from the inner cities has left them the exclusive territory of Blacks. This story (very much a product of its own era) tries to give us a peek at what a segragated [sic] New York might be like from a Black perspective, good points and bad.

Excerpt:

"It's all politics, son. Talk big, yell for equality. It don't make sense to let a good revolution die. They do it for show. A man don't get anywhere politickin' in black New York by sayin' that everything's one hundred per cent all right in the world. And you took all that noise seriously? You didn't know that they just shoutin' because it's part of the routine? You went out to spear you a honkie? I figured you for smarter than that. Look, you all mixed up, boy. A smart man, black or white, he don't mess up a good deal for himself, even if he sometimes say he want to change everything all around. You full of hate, full of dreams. When you grow up, you'll understand. Our problem, it's not how to get out into the suburbs, it's how to keep Whitey from wanting to come back and live in here! We got to keep what we got. We got it pretty good. Who oppressing you, Jimmy? You a slave? Wake up! And now you understand the system a little better, clear your rear end outa my office. I got to phone up the mayor and have a little talk."

  • 1
    Thank you. That excerpt you quoted is obviously what I was trying to remember when I typed out Plot Point #6. After looking at the list of stories in The Year 2000, and doing a little Googling to check on the details of some of them, I'm now confident that I have read them all, so that must be the book I found in a library about 20 years ago. – Lorendiac Mar 3 at 23:09

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