Buchanan just doesn't get it

November 02, 1999|By Leonard Pitts

FOR ABOUT half a second there, I thought Patrick Buchanan might surprise me.

It was during his recent press conference, the one where he announced that he's turning in his GOP card and joining the Reform Party. In the course of his speech, he declared that "of all the needs of this nation, none is greater for our peace and happiness than racial reconciliation."

That's the part that made me perk up. Race is a topic to which conservative politicians must typically be dragged like Georgia mules. Given that Mr. Buchanan had raised the subject without, as best I could tell, a gun to his temple, I listened attentively, wondering what he might say. Would he denounce hate crimes? Decry housing bias? Declaim against inequities in education, employment, criminal justice? Would he surprise me?

Yeah, right.

Here's what Mr. Buchanan said: "The backsliding toward hyphenated Americanism must end. Let us abolish quotas and set aside these un-American devices that reward people based on the color of their skin or what continent their kinfolk came from."

So let me see if I've got this straight: All we need do is strike from our vocabulary those dreaded double A's -- "African-American" and "affirmative action" -- and we'll be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Forgive me, Martin Luther King Jr., wherever you are.

I'm not here to argue the merits of so-called quotas and hyphenated citizenship. No, I only want to note that for Mr. Buchanan to frame the issue of racial reconciliation exclusively or even primarily in those terms is disingenuous at best. You don't want to know what it is at worst.

In Mr. Buchanan's world view, apparently, the question of racial justice turns solely on changes and compromises that need to be made by people of color. Apparently, Mr. Buchanan feels that the white majority has already overcome. They're just waiting on the rest of us.

This, at a time when some Southern Democrats and Republicans were recently caught hobnobbing with a white supremacist group, the government reports that housing discrimination is alive and well, the justice system is grinding up black lives like sausage, the medical profession has been shown to give poorer health care to black patients than to white ones, and the soil is still settling on James Byrd's grave.

I wonder what planet Mr. Buchanan hails from. Because whatever you think of them, the truth is that where race is concerned, affirmative action and hyphenated Americanism are not the most pressing items on the agenda. More to the point, they are not the cause of racial animus. Racial animus is the cause of them.

Too bad our would-be president doesn't have the perception -- or the courage -- to say this. Instead, he charges ahead, mistaking effect for cause. Not unlike a doctor who diagnoses cancer, then treats the patient for weight loss.

Of course, the real tragedy is not that Mr. Buchanan does this, but that many other people do. You don't have to travel very far to hear them wondering aloud why black people choose to shun the embrace of the American mainstream.

When they say this, I invariably feel the disorientation of history being turned on its head.

You wonder how it has escaped their notice that black folks have spent the past 130-plus years in futile search of that embrace.

If Mr. Buchanan is serious about the need for reconciliation, he will stop playing this specious game which treats side issues as if they were central ones, which demands changes from black people and brown people, but holds no corresponding expectation of white ones. If he is serious, he will stop answering crying need with smiling sophistry.

Surprise me, Pat. Put your shoulder to the door.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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