1/23/08 Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS) C3
There's an object lesson for the United States, and especially
for Mississippi, in last week's dust-up over Hillary Clinton's
comment about who played what role in the Civil Rights Movement.
It is this: Race lurks a subtext for almost everything that happens
in this nation. Perhaps it always will.
There's probably no politician with stronger bona fides as a
nonracist than the senator from New York. She has enjoyed the
enthusiastic support of minorities in her two contests for public
Still, her rivalry with a black man for the Democratic nomination
for the presidency hit a big-time bump.
Seeking to make a point about the importance of experience and
having a person in the White House who is receptive to minority
issues, she pointed out that for all the good the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King did in the streets, his efforts would have fallen short
without Lyndon Baines Johnson who, as president, did what it took to
actually get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act
of 1965 through Congress.
While her observations were 100 percent accurate and there was no
slight to Dr. King, one was perceived. The Georgia minister whose
clear voice and words challenged the nation to face up to its
history of discrimination against blacks had been "dissed." Her
chief rival for the nomination, Barack Obama called her
characterizations "ill-advised." Sen. Clinton had said something
racist by merely pointing out that the black man, whose birth was
commemorated with a national holiday Monday, required some help from
a white man.
As per usual, Sen. Clinton immediately positioned herself as a
victim before the next news cycle. She accused the Obama campaign of
deliberately distorting what she had said. The Illinois senator
called that ridiculous. Back and forth the rhetoric intensified. For
a day or two race mattered more than programs, policies or ideas.
It shouldn't pass without serious thought that 40 years after the
assassination of Dr. King, his belief that a day could come when
people would be evaluated based on what they said and did as opposed
to their pigmentation remains unrealized.
It's a door that swings both ways. Many whites are sorely rankled
when, say, black policemen are taped beating a white person and it
doesn't get nearly the press coverage or speechifying by Al Sharpton
and Jesse Jackson that arises when the race configuration is
reversed. No one would know anything about Jena, La., except the
people who live there, if the teens in the Jena Six fracas were all
white or all black. It would have been just kids fighting, not even
reported in the local weekly newspaper.
Many blacks are sorely rankled at statistics showing black
defendants receiving longer sentences, on average, than whites for
the same crimes.
Many whites see pushes for diversity in hiring and promotions as
Many blacks resent that even after working hard and advancing based
on their merit they are nonetheless perceived as having been
promoted based on their color.
Many whites don't understand why it would lead to immediate
termination if they spoke in the workplace the same racial epithet
they heard 35 times booming from an adjacent car's stereo at the
stoplight that morning.
Many blacks can't fathom why whites don't understand why they are
offended by the Confederate flag.
Across the nation and in this state, elections and civil service
hearings and choosing PTA officers take on one tenor if everyone
involved is the same race and take on a different tenor when
different races are involved.
Always, with due respect to Elvis, there are suspicious minds. Where
we wouldn't hesitate to question the motives of a person of our same
color for making a comment, the same comment made by a person of a
different color is seen through the filter of race.
The only really bogus aspect of all this is that we try to pretend
our sensitivities and perceptions have no bearing on our actions.
They do. They fuel the lingering mistrust evident in the Clinton-Obama
Mistrust is a form of fear. Psychobabblists tell us the way to
defeat fears is confront them.
But most choose not to speak openly or frankly about how race still
matters in our culture. Instead, that which divides us continues to
bubble below the surface of polite discourse - except when it bursts
to the surface in the form of accusations when, as with Sen.
Clinton, words aren't chosen carefully enough.