A 21-YEAR-old white supremacist chose Independence Day weekend to wage a one-man race war. Benjamin Nathaniel Smith went on a three-day killing spree through Illinois and Indiana that targeted blacks, Jews and Asians. He killed two people and left nine others injured before turning the gun on himself.
The victims' deaths are not the only tragedies. Even more troubling is the fact that, to some Americans, Smith is a hero.
To white supremacists, Smith is a martyred race warrior. The numbers of such warriors have, paradoxically, risen in the past few years as the country experienced phenomenal economic growth.
When times are good, the ranks of organized hate groups usually shrink. But, in recent years, the numbers of racist foot soldiers have risen, according to Klanwatch, a division of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This may have to do with the Internet. But I believe there is something else at work: The hope of many white supremacists that the millennium will bring a race war.
We Americans are spending the waning days of this millennium deluged by presidential rhetoric. But amid the talk of taxes and abortion, God and Silicon Valley, one topic has been glaringly absent: racial equality.
Unfortunately, this spree of shootings in the Midwest is not likely to be the last hate crime of this century. But in light of its brutality, I suggest we ask some critical questions of the presidential candidates:
Do you repudiate the racism within America's political system? It is easy to attack politicians such as former Klan leader David Duke, who managed to get nearly 20 percent of the vote in a special congressional election earlier this year. But do you have the fortitude to criticize powerful political leaders like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott?
Only under intense media pressure did he disavow the racist Council of Conservative Citizens -- a group he once praised for having the "right principles and the right philosophy."
Do you pledge to run a campaign free from the barely veiled racial attacks that have infused races ranging from George Bush's 1988 presidential run (with the infamous Willie Horton ads) to North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' campaign ads infering that affirmative action costs whites jobs?
Do you recognize the fact that America's public education system has never been truly integrated since the majority of black children still go to segregated schools? What do you intend to do about it?
In your fund-raising trips to Silicon Valley, do you have the guts to challenge an industry that has one of the poorest records of employing blacks and Latinos, and of putting them on corporate boards? Do you have the strength to follow the Rev. Jesse Jackson's lead in urging these corporations to help develop the untapped talent in America's urban schools, as well as hiring talented workers from abroad?
Do you recognize that mandatory minimum sentences are not producing criminal justice, but an unjust system that incarcerates the poor and largely nonwhite few, rather than wealthy whites involved in the drug trade? Can you tailor a message that is "tough on crime" without relying on laws of which most judges disapprove?
Do you embrace a vision of an America that can retain its strength, even grow stronger, as the percentage of whites diminishes and the percentage of nonwhites and religious minorities increases? (By 2050, most Americans will be people of color, something that's already true in such cities as Los Angeles, New York and Baltimore.)
The presidential candidates will require strength to answer these questions clearly and unequivocally. (And for that matter, reporters will need the strength to ask them.)
Most Americans want to usher in the year 2000 with revelry and joy, not a race war. But to disarm the extremists, we must choose a president who will actively work to bind this nation together, rather than idly letting it drift apart.
Farai Chideya, an ABC News reporter, is the author of "The Color of Our Future," (William Morrow). She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
Pub Date: 7/11/99