Across the divide

September 09, 2001|By Elijah E. Cummings

THE DIVISION between the racial majority and the racial minorities in our nation is an issue that we have been grappling with since the Declaration of Independence.

How do different races and cultures learn to live together and reap the fruits of their labors without resentment? What should be the obligation of the federal government to ensure that minorities are treated equally? How do we right the misperceptions between the racial majorities and minorities?

How do we even begin a dialogue to bridge the gap of understanding our nation's racial differences in education and economic status that were so profoundly reflected in the recent national survey of white Americans' perceptions about minority Americans?

A national survey conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that, despite evidence that minorities lag significantly behind whites in income, education and access to health care, the vast majority of whites say minorities are doing as well or better than they are in these areas.

The consequences of this misperception of racial minorities undermine our country's strength in its diversity and prosperity. There is no doubt that we must address this innate problem before it festers further.

President Bill Clinton's national dialogue on race was perhaps perceived as preaching to the choir because of his legendary popularity with African-Americans. President Bush may now be in a better position to restart such a national dialogue because of his stated willingness to reach out and listen to minorities. I believe such a discussion could have a great impact on both sides of the issue.

The most emotional conversation one can have in this country is about race. Americans have harbored feelings about racial issues for centuries, and attitudes between the races seem to reflect a growing misconception of racial circumstances and how the federal government should be enforcing its laws. Consequently, the time is ripe for a rational debate to quell the simmering emotion on both sides.

The disturbing survey shows that many people want to avoid this kind of difficult discussion by concluding that blacks and whites are now equal, with discrimination and segregation now in the past.

Under this new revisionist reality of equality between the races, there is a growing resentment of laws and government programs to ensure equal treatment between the races.

But have we finally reached the ideals proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence? Are our constitutional limits on equal protection under the law outdated? Does this survey reflect the growing willingness to sacrifice the ideal of equality in the name of social harmony?

As a nation built on the ideal of equality among men that originally was expressed in our Declaration of Independence, we fought a civil war and became a single people, as Abraham Lincoln succinctly stated at Gettysburg, "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

It is this ideal that has transcended its age, spreading and deepening its influence to all minorities who have come to the United States. It is the principle that undermines the oldest demon in human nature - racial prejudice.

Can we really now simply declare that enough time has passed, that the struggle is over, that the demon has been eradicated?

The American spirit of equality needs a new airing. There needs to be a new authoritative understanding and an expression of that fundamental concept.

Our nation cannot become a house divided over how our government fosters equality.

President Bush is in a unique position of timing and political influence to profoundly affect this fractious issue.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat, represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District.

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