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A blockbuster summer for black success

This is the billion-dollar summer in Hollywood and the 100-million-dollar war in the National Basketball Association. But nobody has noticed what these spectacular seasons mean for race relations in America.

The "war" refers to the fact that four or five players in the NBA, including Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal and Juwan Howard, recently signed multiyear contracts for $100-million, give or take a few dollars. Michael Jordan, superstar nonpareil, received $30-million for one year alone. And a Nigerian immigrant named Dikembe Mtumbo has been signed for $50-million for five. All this largess says something about race relations in America because all these new multimillionaires are black. There is not a single white superstar among them.

In Atlanta, America's "dream team" consists of five black superstars. The honor of lighting the Olympic torch (and representing America) was given to Muhammad Ali. The last time the Olympics was held in America, the honor went to another African-American, Rafer Johnson.

Now turn to Hollywood. Among the summer blockbusters, two films _ a comedy and a serious drama about the military _ are being carried by black stars. In fact, these are the only summer blockbusters carried by actors alone and not special effects.

And at the top of the New York Times bestseller list is Bad As I Wanna Be, the autobiography by tattooed, earringed, orange- or green-haired Dennis Rodman.

What does it all mean? It means that what was once called the "color bar" in American life is for all intents and purposes finally and irrevocably dead.

Yet no one has noticed. Indeed, I can hear the chorus of objectors now. What does it mean, they will say, if a few superstar athletes make it? What about all those who don't? This objection misses the point. Being a superstar and commanding a megasalary is not just about excelling in the game. Big-time sports are big business. The money has to come from somewhere. Being a superstar multimillionaire is first of all about being a box-office draw, about winning a place in the hearts and minds of tens of millions of paying customers _ all those suburban white kids saying they want to "be like Mike," all those paying customers willing to shell out three times the bucks just to see Shaq.

That's why these superstars make even more money through product endorsements and by becoming movie stars themselves. In basketball, where more than 80 percent of the paying customers are white, being a superstar means winning a place in the hearts and minds of white America itself. The triumph of Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington in their movie blockbusters obviously means the same thing.

Is there still racism in America? Yes. Are there bigots? Of course there are. Let's not forget that racists and bigots come in all colors and all ethnic origins. But the meaning behind this summer's triumphs is that most Americans _ and most white Americans _ can find a place in their hearts for minorities, can make them their heroes and objects of emulation. This is an extraordinary fact, perhaps unprecedented in the history of nations.

This remarkable achievement is understood by most Americans and has been for some time. Unlike Jesse Jackson, they see that minorities are not "locked out" from success in America, if they have the ability, persistence, discipline and talent to do what it takes to become successful. Most Americans are tired of being constantly told that they are racists who need affirmative action laws to compel them to be fair, when they can see that in fields where affirmative action laws do not apply _ like athletics and film _ blacks and other minorities do very well indeed. In fact, in basketball, they do far better than their white competitors.

The reality is that we are not all the same physically or mentally, and we are not all equal in talent and ability. Indeed, the truest diversity is just that: individual talent and ability. As a nation, we need to return to emphasis on the individual, making sure that opportunity is open to all _ not that the results are the same.

It does not help people to constantly tell them that the system is rigged against them, particularly when the achievement of their peers tells them otherwise. We need to end the emphasis on groups and group grievances that has become the mantra of the "multicultural" left and focus more on the ways individuals within groups can and cannot, do and do not, take advantage of the opportunities that are clearly available to them.

David Horowitz is president of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

Special to the Los Angeles Times