Tuesday, January 07, 2003
Race and politics: In the wake of the "Trent Lott Stupidity," there was a landslide of denunciations from both conservative and liberal columnists -- as there should have been.
There's a discussion that needs to take place in America regarding race.
In the nearly 40 years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, America has come a long way on the issue of race. Jim Crow is no more. It is not coming back. Ever.
Any suggestion that there is a vast Republican-sponsored conspiracy to reinstate segregation is not only laughable -- it is stupid. Any suggestion that Republicans, as a party, hate blacks, Latinos or any other minority group is a vicious slander.
Finally, it appears as though at least one responsible commentator from the left are willing to discuss the topic of race, affirmative action without resorting to the knee-jerk charge of racism. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen's column today is a mild rebuke to Democrats and their race card-playing tendencies.
Of course, (Al) Gore is no racist, and it is not even remotely possible that he ever used racially offensive speech. But for a long time he has been the personification of a Democratic Party that has found it impossible to move off the racial dime, often staying silent or complicitous when others waved the bloody shirt of ol' time racism -- usually just to propel African Americans to the polls.
This is precisely what happened in the last presidential campaign when the NAACP all but placed the body of James Byrd Jr., the victim of a racial murder, at George W. Bush's doorstep. Byrd's daughter, Renee Mullins, narrated the commercial and said, "So when Gov. George W. Bush refused to support hate-crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again."
This tasteless ad, run just before the presidential election, was not denounced by a single prominent Democrat. It tried to link Byrd's gruesome murder to Bush's opposition to hate-crime legislation. That was pretty close to, if not indistinguishable from, calling him soft on racism.
Gore was the presidential candidate and had an absolute obligation to denounce the ad. (So did Bill Clinton.) He did not, because in its own way the Democratic Party is just as likely to play the race card as the Republican Party. Take a principled stand against this or that civil rights program and you're going to be denounced as a racist.
I'd disagree with Cohen's contention that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to play the race card. Referencing the 2002 elections, many leading Democrats, including "right-wing conspiracy" backer Hillary Rodham Clinton, suggested that Republicans had used the confederate flag to get elected in some Southern states. Of course, no one has explicitly stated just exactly whom they are referring to, nor have they pointed to statements, political mailers or TV or radio ads that support their contention.
Instead, they throw out the accusation, and, with the exception of Fox News, the media shows the sound bite but fails to do the basic reporting to determine whether or not the statement is true.
Hate-crime legislation is an example. Why it is needed is beyond me. Byrd's killers were hardly going to be daunted by such legislation, as what they did -- murder -- was already a capital crime. (Two of the three killers have been sentenced to death and the third to life in prison.) The town of Jasper, Tex., where the murder occurred, hung its head in shame. Yet, the entire ugly incident -- an aberration, really -- was treated as if the era of lynchings was not over and something had to be done quickly. To think otherwise was somehow racist.
It's the same with affirmative action. Say you oppose it -- believing it is a worthy end but achieved by dubious means -- and you stand a fair chance of being accused of racism. Gore himself came pretty close to that when, in a 1998 speech, he likened opposition to affirmative action to a duck blind. "They hide behind the phrase ['a colorblind society'] and just hope that we, like the ducks, won't be able to see through it."
Yes, that is sometimes the case. But opponents of affirmative action include quite a few blacks, who cannot be reasonably accused of racism. No matter. The prospect of having to defend yourself against what amounts to the most powerful charge in American politics is enough to make anyone just shut his mouth and, if he is in Congress, vote the way of political correctness.
Cohen is being charitable in his analysis. "...stand a fair chance of being accused of racism?" You're undoubtedly going to be accused of racism.
Cohen's article, even with its flaws, is a good start. But don't expect many others to follow. It will take a sea-change in the American media and academia when it comes to the discussion of race -- but don't expect it anytime soon.
I just finished reading Bill McGowan's book "Coloring the News," last night. It should be required reading for every journalist -- and every college student for that matter. From reading McGowan's book, and my own experiences in newsrooms, don't expect change anytime soon. Racial hatemongers like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton have too much invested (figuratively and literally) in the current racial division in this country to have an honest, forthright discussion of issues like affirmative action. Unfortunately for the black community, the Sharptons, Farrakhans and Jesse Jacksons of this world are the ones who would have to spur this discussion -- others do not have the liberal credentials to avoid the "oreo" or "Uncle Tom" accusations that would be sure to follow.
While racism will likely always be a part of the human condition (witness anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East), we've come much farther on the issue of race than many who have vested interest in racial division would like to believe.