TWO RECENT incidents in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia illustrate the growing problem Americans have talking about race, especially to young people.
The first incident involved a fund-raiser held by some fraternities and sororities at George Mason University. The event was a "Dress a Sig" contest, in which women from six fraternities dressed members of the fraternity Sigma Chi up as women. A woman from the Gamma Phi Beta sorority dressed up one male student in a blouse, a wig, a pillow strapped to his rear end -- and made him up in blackface.
The second incident involved a 16-year-old boy who was accused of burning a cross on the lawn of Fairfax High School after a week of incidents between black and white students on campus.
Which incident provoked the harsher penalty?
Well, if you said the cross-burning, you were wrong.
The chief judge of the Fairfax Family Court dismissed the cross-burning charge on the grounds that Virginia's law against burning a cross on public property (or someone else's property) with the intent to intimidate was unconstitutional.
Judge Jane Delbridge accepted the contention of the boy's lawyer that cross-burning was constitutionally protected free speech, much as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled flag-burning to be.
At George Mason University, on the other hand, the dean of student services, Kenneth Bumgarner, suspended the fraternity for two years and the sorority for one. They will be allowed to participate only in programs on "cultural differences," diversity and the concerns of women.'
The two incidents taken together send out a series of wrong messages about race relations and fairness in American society. The combined impact devalues the real history of racial discrimination in this country.
The George Mason penalty is a clear case of overkill. The fraternity's president, John Singsank, has challenged the suspension, which he says broke no campus rules. "We apologize for our ignorance," he said. "We're sorry we hurt people. But where have we done something against the law?"
The university's action seems a classic example of the "politically correct" approach many critics charge is typical of colleges today -- the desire to appease women and minorities at any cost.
But the George Mason suspensions will more than anything else focus debate on their harshness and may well increase polarization on campus. A milder wrist-slapping that made clear the bad taste and insensitivity in the blackface routine and built upon the fraternity leaders' understanding that they had hurt people would probably do more good in the long run.
In the cross-burning case, Virginia is one of 32 states with "hate crime" laws which target acts, such as cross-burning, designed to intimidate people on the basis of race or religion.
The defendant's attorney, Brian McCormack, said the law's assigning the intent to intimidate to a cross-burning was overly broad. "You may not intend to express anything by lighting a cross in your neighbor's basement to test out a smoke alarm," he said, "but under the statute, you are presumed to be a felon."
But cross-burning has a very specific history. It has long been a sign of intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups. In the past, burning a cross on someone's lawn often meant that violence -- perhaps a lynching -- would follow.
Whatever you think of flag-burning as a protest, the act has not been associated with violence, and certainly not violence against anyone because of their race.
To dismiss the clear intent of intimidation in a cross-burning is to erase one of the ugliest symbols in American history and, in the process, to give legitimacy to racism.
To use a cannon to kill a fly in the case of something like the George Mason blackface incident is to send out the message that minorities have rights only because of political claims to privileged status.
It's a common complaint today that young people aren't learning. They may not be learning to write a decent sentence or solve a math problem, but they learn the values that society teaches them. In Fairfax County, the adults have taught them some very bad values.