Racial demons still torment us

It is a faint memory now, but at the height of the civil rights revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, advocates contended for a color-blind society. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King persuasively wrote that all persons should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Yet we are as race-conscious as we have ever been, if not more so. In fact, Americans have made great progress toward this humane vision of political community. Racial minorities are well-represented in all walks of life, in the arts, the professions and the workplace. But this change has been accompanied by a persistent demand for entitlements as distinguished from rights, which burdens white people with guilt and tarnishes the achievements of non-white people with preference.

A friend of mine who grew up in northern Florida and encountered ugly racial discrimination wrote 20 years ago that Americans were dominated by race in ways supposed to be extirpated by the success of civil rights legislation. The reason, he said, was that the idea of equality of opportunity had been hijacked by equality of condition. This unfortunate state of affairs has not passed.

Whether it is presidential politics or the most personal experiences of everyday life, race trumps everything. Americans are justly proud of the pending nomination of the first presidential candidate of African descent. It would seem to give the lie to those who write off Americans as irredeemably racist. Democratic voters and activists have freely consented to elevating Sen. Barack Obama to our highest office, and public opinion polls indicate that he has more than an even chance of being elected.

Yet Obama has already given the lie to our people’s hopefulness by emphasizing his race. Recently he voiced his concerns about the Republican campaign that will be waged against him. “We know the strategy,” he said. Republicans planned to make people afraid of him. They’d say “he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”

Republicans have long and rightly feared that this was precisely the tack that Obama would take in his quest for national leadership. Despite all of Obama’s talk of “change” and “unity” and “bipartisanship,” he is indistinguishable from the Democratic liberals who, with the exception of the triangulating Bill Clinton, went down to defeat, from George McGovern to John Kerry. He needs race to distract the largely centrist American electorate from his unelectable political leanings.

Those who now swoon for Obama, whatever their race or ethnicity, are captivated by the thought of electing our first black president, indifferent if not oblivious, to the fact that, just as we cannot justify electing someone to office just because he or she is white, neither can we countenance voting for Obama just because he is black.

Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz has remarked on the Obama phenomenon in the course of concluding, as the headline for her column last week read, “American politics aren’t ‘post-racial’” She devoted most of her piece, however, to an incident at Purdue University that will strike most of us as bizarre. But in the current political climate, it is all too illustrative.

A student was “caught” last year reading a book entitled “Notre Dame v. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan,” a history of the battle students waged against the Klan in the 1920s. Keith Sampson, a student employed by Purdue’s janitorial staff, was charged with reading a book during his lunch break with a title that offended black employees and students. It did not matter that the book told a story about people opposed to racism, which book Sampson had checked out of the university library.

One would think that the old admonition not to judge a book by its cover literally would be applicable to this case, but one would be wrong. Several layers of union and college officialdom took umbrage before the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education took up the student’s case and thus embarrassed all those seeking to prosecute Mr. Sampson for his “thought crime.” The resultant publicity forced University Chancellor Charles R. Bantz to issue an apologetic letter transforming the nature of the charge from one of reading a book to “harassing” other college personnel, which doubtless convinced nobody.

It’s as if we have all been forced to return to childhood, wherein distinctions between fact and fantasy have dissolved, and people are accused of whatever we believe or wish they were guilty of, so that the accusers can enjoy the satisfaction of being “little goody two shoes” above all reproach.

Unfortunately, the incident at Purdue is not isolated nor localized but has become typical and national. We, the benefactors of the civil rights revolution, should be placing its principles into practice by making decisions based on the merits of the case and the character of individuals. In countless instances across America, that is exactly what we are doing. But in our most powerful institutions we are failing miserably.