IN THE aftermath of the atrocious slaughter in Oklahoma City, I am struck by the leniency accorded the white purveyors of hatred.
Right now, the Michigan Militia and other neo-Nazi groups implicated in the Oklahoma City bombing, along with talk-show hosts who routinely advocate target practice on well-known political figures, have had all the chance in the world to vindicate themselves.
This is in stark contrast to how the media reacted a year ago to anti-Semitic remarks made by the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan and his former aide, Khalid Abdul Muhammad. At that time, the media and even members of Congress rushed to condemn them.
Messrs. Farrakhan and Muhammad are leaders of a black nationalist organization that may not be to everyone's taste. They have made anti-Semitic comments that were compulsively quoted, but they are not known as publishers and, indeed, exporters, of whole libraries of filth. Nor do their followers blow up government buildings and kill more than 150 innocent people, including infants and toddlers.
Messrs. Farrakhan and Muhammad may not be likable figures, but their crimes seem to have been finite and limited to the realm of rhetoric. Yet a year ago, it seemed that all of America was damning what they had said and demanding that everyone else follow suit.
A year ago, condemning Messrs. Farrakhan and Muhammad was de rigeur for anyone claiming citizenship in the American republic, and state legislators in my own It is far easier for Americans to censure blacks than whites, even when the infractions are of different orders of magnitude.
state of New Jersey were questioning whether the First Amendment was too loose, because it let Messrs. Farrakhan and Muhammad get away with saying bad things.
Today, the situation is entirely different. Now we hear much of First Amendment freedoms and the need to protect them. In the presence of such carnage, many Americans are reluctant to draw connections between hate speech and violence.
One who did make that connection was President Clinton, who deplored the "loud and angry voices" that "spread hate" and advocate violence. This was well said, but pretty innocuous stuff. Or so one would think.
President Clinton's words, however, were not considered harmless, for he finds himself criticized by the two U.S. senators from Oklahoma for speaking inappropriately and in bad taste. The Rush Limbaughs and G. Gordon Liddys of this country draw a wide distinction between their aggressive words and actual violent actions. They are accorded television and radio time to defend themselves repeatedly, and we are bending over backwards to let haters have their say.
While talk-show hosts appear on television to insist on the harmlessness of their hate speech, TV anchors refuse to draw conclusions about the relation between the Oklahoma City bombing and the white supremacist militia groups scattered from Michigan to Nebraska to California. Everyone is being very, very careful now not to infringe on the First Amendment rights of garden-variety radio haters and murderous neo-Nazis.
And what of the Michigan Militia members who publish libraries full of hate literature, who run paramilitary camps, terrorize the Forestry Service and regurgitate bigotry on computer networks? Where are the demands for their censure in Congress? Why are they not trotted out and publicly spanked time and again like Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Abdul Muhammad?
I cannot but be struck by the disparity between the levels of censure. On the one hand, we have white hate groups with actual histories of terrorizing federal agents in the West. On the other, we have two black men whose language is mean but who lack literal firepower. Yet, it is the white neo-Nazi who have been dealt with gingerly, while a wall of condemnation came down on Messrs. Farrakhan and Muhammad.
Given this difference, I conclude that it is far easier for Americans to censure blacks than whites, even when the infractions are of different orders of magnitude. I speak here not of the bombing, which thousands have rightly denounced, but of the publication and distribution of hatred, in which American Nazis have few peers.
If Americans could condemn the foul speech of whites who spew hatred -- from neo-Nazis to bigoted talk-show hosts -- as they condemned bigoted remarks of bigoted black men, the level of hate speech in our culture might actually decline.
Nell Irvin Painter is a historian who is completing a biography of Sojourner Truth.