Inching closer to harmony

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

November 19, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Race relations have never been better in this country and blacks and whites have never been closer.

Obvious but it needed to be said.

The bitter gubernatorial election in Louisiana last weekend between Democrat Edwin W. Edwards and Republican David E. Duke has sparked national concern over the state of race relations in this country and almost everyone's prognosis is bad.

Duke, the former high muckety-muck of the Ku Klux Klan and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, lost, but he got more than 680,000 votes Saturday either despite, or because of, his past.

Duke ran a racially polarizing campaign. He talked about welfare cheats and coddled criminals and affirmative action programs that robbed hard-working whites of a chance to make a decent living.

Most of the time, Duke didn't mention race but his audience knew what he meant. He was a Stealth bigot whose message struck a resonant chord with other Stealth bigots.

And in doing so, Duke used the same Stealth technology that had been deployed with great success by the presidential election campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Even amid the euphoria over Edwards' victory, commentators were warning that Louisiana voters appeared to have rejected Duke, the man, but not his message. All of this was cited as evidence of a deterioration in race relations.

We ought to be concerned.

But let's not romanticize the past.

Race relations are bad today, but they were worse yesterday and much, much worse the day before yesterday.

In fact, by almost any yardstick imaginable, race relations never have been better and blacks and whites never have been closer.

Blacks participate in all levels of society to a much greater degree than they ever have before, and with significantly less resistance from whites. The fact that whites and blacks do not appear close at all today only serves to point out how far we need to go.

What has changed has been the attitude of national leadership, starting with the White House. Before, the president forced society to confront its fears but the current leadership feeds on those fears for short-term political gain.

And Democratic leadership has been afraid to challenge this attitude head-on.

You beat Duke's message the same way Edwards' message beat Duke, the man. You confront it. You drag the innuendoes and stereotypes out into the light and expose them as nonsense.

Let's take, for starters, the myth of black privilege.

Stealth bigots contend the welfare system has created generations of dependent blacks who would rather lounge about on the public dole than work. Easy enough to prove. Let's take a look.

Are most welfare recipients living in luxury? Would we ourselves want to live the way they do? Or do we, the taxpayers, maintain their lives in such miserable conditions that the average recipient works desperately to get off?

I think we know the answer to that.

Stealth bigots complain that welfare cheats cripple the economy. Which do you think has been most crippling -- welfare cheaters or the crooked scam artists on Wall Street?

We can explode the myths and fears surrounding affirmative action with equal assurance.

If we put it to the test, (and indeed, researchers have done so repeatedly in recent years) who do you think is most likely to be treated unfairly -- the qualified black employee or the qualified white employee?

National opinion polls have shown that most whites acknowledge that they have witnessed discrimination against minorities at their workplace. Why has it been so difficult for national leaders to point out that affirmative action programs are nothing more than attempts to address those problems?

Those same opinion polls demonstrate that most whites believe blacks are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system -- so who's being coddled?

And is harsh treatment the answer to crime? I don't believe so and I believe it can be demonstrated.

It is all a matter of perspective. The Duke incident does not demonstrate that we are hurtling toward a racial Armageddon. We are inching away from it.

But we still have miles to go before we sleep.

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