Selected Skirmishes: Racism, Pro and Con


In Miami, an African-American commissioner named Miller Dawkins has shelved the nomination of a Harvard-educated lawyer, Mario Williams (nominated for a post on the Bayfront Park Management Trust). Why? "He's a Hispanic, he's not black," thunders Dawkins. (You figure it out.)

In Harlem, an 85-year-old black social worker has won widespread praise for her hard-hitting inner-city school programs by telling black students: "We didn't come here because we wanted to be here. We were happy in Africa. Get it straight. They do everything in the world to us to make it harder for black people. They're mean." The New York Times, noting that Mother Hale has been "honored by Presidents and Governors and Mayors," summarizes her self-help approach thus: "Beware of what crack and white people can do to you." (Good advice in any neighborhood.)

In California, the Rev. Jackson looks out on his audience of minority state legislators and speaks against a reapportionment-reform initiative directing retired judges to draw district boundaries, on the grounds that "there are no persons sitting here whose grandfathers are retired judges." How does he know?

Hey, call me naïve, call me irresponsible. But characterization of an entire race of folks on the basis of their pigmentation is…progressive? Where the hell did this double standard come from? Where it will lead, the esteemed Rep. Gus Savage already seems to know.

The Chicago Democrat gained fame last year as the author of one of the great lines in all of Gropedom, when he gravely notified a black Peace Corps-ette that, in deflecting his unwanted advances, she was in danger of becoming "a traitor to her race." That she pried herself free (enough to file criminal assault charges) in the face of such incredible wit and charm is no reflection in the slightest on the vast resourcefulness of this stud muffin from the second district of Illinois.

But at least the antics of the aptly labeled Mr. Savage manage to cross our social tripwires; both the law and Conventional Wisdom have been hostile to the congressman. Similarly for Louie Farrakhan's vicious Jew baiting. Yet this is a very high threshold, underneath which much racial loutishness traverses freely. And the double standard defines the terms. Whereas Campanis, Watt, and The Greek all ended up with quick trips to Bigots' Hell, and famous Harvard historians are sentenced to "sensitivity" reeducation camps for letting slip references to "American Indians" ("Native Americans," puh-leez), far bolder ethnic generalizers indulge their foibles freely.

Take Jesse Jackson, a man who is not afraid to define people by the richness of their tan. (This Jackson is amaaazing. He can tell your ancestors' job status just by the color of your skin.) Jesse's color-delineated (Rainbow Coalition) politics, his Hymietown slurs, his differential expectations for a black journalist vs. his white counterparts (revealed in his outrage that a black Washington Post reporter would dare breathe a word of the Hymietown rap to his readers), bring him no shame. Why? You see, Jesse's an angry black man, and while he may be a bit prejudicial, that's OK. He may be technically racist, but he's got one helluvan excuse (legacy of slavery, and all). So super technically he's entitled to a wider margin for error here than, say, Andy Rooney.

Now, that's racism squared.

The greatest single fuel rod propelling the civil rights movement, as Shelby Steele recently observed, was the powerful human impulse of fair dealing: Who could look at the cruelty of the crackers in Little Rock or Jackson or Selma and not be revolted by the ferocious unfairness of epidermal indictments? The sympathy so many white Americans felt in their gut was utterly nonracial; it was an instinctive brotherhood with an underdog getting the shaft. By locking onto the specifics of the black-white struggle—the colors—today's rhetoric often lets loose of the general principle: equality before the law. But that guiding vision, so marvelously embedded in our Constitution, and so nobly unearthed by the efforts of an American King, was the motive force both defining and driving civil rights.

Depreciating the full market value of the deeply compelling argument of simple human fairness—a bond across color lines—took much effort and many convolutions. It has not been easy to squander the moral advantage that the civil rights movement was handed by the likes of Lester Maddox, Bull Connor, and Gov. Faubus. But the socially accepted ideas that blacks—as a group—have views, that color determines politics, that "reverse discrimination" isn't as bad as other discrimination, that racism isn't racism if it's the right color of racism…That poisons a once-vast reservoir of good will with the toxic wastes of hypocrisy.

To say that our standards for public behavior cannot be colorblind due to past injustices is to give bitter legacies an eerie sort of life after death. More important, the underlying assumption of racial inequality (which oozes from the double standard) unilaterally disarms the fight for civil rights. Because there is an inescapable symmetry in justice. In fact, that's just what Lady Justice tries to show with those unbiased scales. Blindfolded, oblivious to all but the merits of the individual case, she makes law. But not even with her blinders on, Gus—don't even think about it.

Contributing editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.