'American Dream' must be for be everyone

December 11, 1997|By Roger Wilkins

FAIRFAX, Va. -- When Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, declared that his opposition to Bill Lann Lee's nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights was ''a matter of principle with me,'' he was attempting to transform right-wing racial ideology into mainstream civil-rights orthodoxy. The essence of this position is that the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s left us with a degree of racism so negligible that the only things now threatening our racial tranquillity are race-conscious remedies, particularly affirmative action.

As a man once on intimate terms with segregation, I would be the last person to deny the enormity of racial progress in this century. I was born in a segregated hospital and had my first educational experience in a one-room segregated schoolhouse. My father, who died in Kansas City, is buried in a segregated cemetery because, in 1941, in Missouri, blacks weren't good enough -- even dead -- to be around white people.

All that is over now, at least as a matter of legal principle. Constitutionalized segregation has been struck down and some federal protections erected for blacks, women and other minorities. Real education and economic gains have been made. But the struggle is far from over.

Some opponents of affirmative action, like James Q. Wilson, however, manipulate reality to make us think it's so close to over that all that is required to cross the finish line are bracing doses of personal responsibility for the poor. In a recent article in the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Wilson first wrote an ode to our racial progress and then minimized current problems by suggesting the remaining difficulties are centered on an underclass ''that numbers perhaps 900,000.'' He says that their problems arise solely from their personal behavior.

The truth about contemporary racial issues is far larger and far more complex. Real gaps in income, wealth, education, health, housing opportunities and employment still remain at all education levels, and are especially acute for the least skilled.

And, tragically, more than 40 percent of black children are growing up in poverty. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's economic policies require a pool of at least 6.5 million unemployed Americans to protect the value of wealthy people's money. Blacks bear more than twice their share of this crippling national economic assignment, but nobody seems to notice. Because much public policy aimed at the poor discounts the human consequences of pervasive joblessness, cultural contempt and poverty, we look for ways to punish, not help them.

For example, criminal-justice disparities between treatment of whites and minorities are so glaring that they shame our nation. To ignore such enormous social facts requires, it seems to me, a willful blindness.

But even the numbers don't tell the whole story. The racism-is-negligible argument would be a hard sell to the black teen-aged patron of an Eddie Bauer outlet in Prince George's County, Md., forced by a security guard to strip off his day-old shirt because he could not produce a receipt to prove his purchase. It would be a hard sell to my white student who recently despaired because his parents were still trying to teach him racism by obsessing about ''niggers'' and how they ''are ruining everything.''

Skinhead's hatred

And you couldn't sell it to William Finnegan of The New Yorker, who wrote that his blood chilled when a 16-year-old girl linked with skinheads told him in a breathy voice how much she loved her hatred. Mr. Finnegan sensed the young woman felt her ''marginal caste-class privilege'' ebbing away and held onto her ''hatred'' as a last shred of self-respect.

In order for those who promote the idea that America is now almost colorblind to be right, the weight and momentum of more than three and a half centuries of American culture would have had to have been arrested and turned on a dime in the three short decades since the late 1960s. That's never happened in world history and it didn't happen here.

Given the demographic realities the nation faces, those who seek to perpetuate entrenched white privilege are not only doing injury to our current quest for a more just and civilized society: They are seriously endangering the American future. The primitive hold the ''white America'' myth still has is deeply threatening to millions of citizens who sense the new America now being born.

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