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Monday, January 20, 2003

Happy Birthday

I know it’s not Martin Luther King’s real birthday and all.

But in recognition of the holiday named for him, I figured I would get a few things off my chest, dear readers. Three short, semi-coherent thoughts await…

I

I seem to vacillate between optimism and pessimism when it comes to the future of race relations.

I think to myself that people my age are generally carrying a lot less prejudice baggage than people older than me. And that kids growing up now are carrying even less. (I’ll talk about my particular baggage in a future essay.) Many urban and suburban areas nationwide are becoming less segregated. Taboos against interracial dating are slowly but surely eroding, particularly among the young.

On the other hand, schools are in many places as segregated as they were at the time of Brown vs. Board of Education.

And all it took was something like the O.J. Simpson trial to polarize everything all over again for a while. For one group, it was about the corrupt Los Angeles Police trying to railroad another black man and not getting away with it for once. For the other, it was about a predominantly black jury setting a killer free in part because of his race (and in part because of his celebrity status.)

Racial tension over gentrification in Washington, DC rages on. There are a lot of issues involved, all of them carrying the overtones of a culture clash. Race gets injected into the most mundane local neighborhood issues, from zoning overlays to parking restrictions. And I have to wonder: If it can’t work here, where can it work in this country?

II

I have thusfar not weighed in on affirmative action. I made a brief reference to it in an essay where I explained why I was opposed to the reparations movement. But now that it’s front and center in the political landscape, I figure I ought to say something about it.

It’s more than a little unfair to refer to the scheme employed by the University of Michigan as a “quota,” ungainly as it may be. The fact is that there are a lot of criteria on there that don’t relate to “qualifications” as conservatives portray them, not just racial/ethnic criteria. If we’re going try to legislate some “perfect meritocracy” of college admissions, then U of M is going to have to get rid of its preferences, for instance, for residents of the Upper Peninsula, or the preference for legacies. It arguably has to get rid of preferences for athletes as well.

We all know that’s not going to happen, and I’m far from certain that it would be a good thing if such a thing were to happen.

There are certain things about the experience of being a “disfavored” minority that I’m never going to be able to fully comprehend. I’m not going to get pulled over by police on account of my race. I’m not likely going to have as many assumptions made about me in general.

But, between middle school, high school, college, and law school, I met a lot of people from backgrounds very different from my own, some of whom have been through these very life experiences. And I’m not sure without that cultural education that I’d be anywhere near as well-rounded a person as I have become.

It’s my opinion that dialogue involving these life experiences is an important part of a modern education. For many, college is the best, in and at least some cases the only, such opportunity to absorb such differing perspectives. And if that means a few people, many of whom have been given many advantages in life, don’t get into their first choice school, I think it’s worth it.


III

I was pretty silent about the Trent Lott mess, mostly because I didn’t really have anything that unique to say about it. True, he kept his Senate seat, and got a cushy chairmanship, but at least it can be said he paid a price for his remarks.

On the central human rights issue of most of the 20th century, conservatives (now represented by the Republican Party in nearly all cases) in general and Southern conservatives in particular were clearly on the wrong side of it. For obvious reasons, they don’t like being reminded of that, and they especially don’t like it when one of their own inadvertently does the reminding.

I won’t belabor the point about just what Strom Thurmond ran on in 1948. The Dixiecrats, led by Thurmond, defected en masse to the Republican Party, who welcomed them with open arms. That original crop of Dixiecrats are dying out and/or leaving office, which, the Republican Party would have us all believe, ushers in a totally new era in American politics.

But if things have changed to such a degree, why are there so many people on that side of the aisle expressing nostalgia for the Confederate flag, the Confederacy and the antebellum South? Why, of all the college admission criteria they could go after, did they choose the one (other than possibly basketball or football ability) that disproportionately benefits non-whites? Why have they targeted spending programs designed to help the urban poor, as opposed the to massive farm subsidies that generally go to large agribusiness concerns? Why do Republican operatives engage in voter suppression efforts in minority neighborhoods?

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that nearly all their fiscal, economic, and social policy stances come down disproportionately hard on non-whites, that it’s all about “small government” or “self sufficiency” or some other principle. It’s not as if being against social spending could be said to be racist per se.

It’s just that conservative politicians from coast to coast – Democrats as well as Republicans - for the last 50 years have been using racially coded rhetoric – states’ rights, welfare queens, Willie Horton, crack babies - to sell their various platforms about “law and order” and “personal responsibility” and such. History suggests that this approach has brought its purveyors some measure of success.

Conservative talk radio, from Rush Limbaugh on down, to this day regularly demonizes non-whites, usually in the name of “humor.”

There’s still a well of racial prejudice out there to tap in this country; it’s only natural that there would be politicians willing to pander to such feelings. We expect that in a democracy. But we shouldn’t let such politicians get away with pretending that they aren’t doing so.

That’s all for tonight.


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