Still dreaming

January 20, 2003

NEARLY 40 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared with his countrymen the dream of a colorblind America, the national conversation is once again about race.

Affirmative action. Racial profiling. Bias in the death penalty. Judicial insensitivity. Trent Lott. Michael Steele.

Obviously, much progress has been made since that sweltering day in August 1963 when Dr. King gave perhaps his most famous speech before 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. Progress in open housing, public accommodations, voting rights.

Just last week, on the 74th anniversary of the Dr. King's birth, Mr. Steele was sworn in as Maryland's lieutenant governor -- the first African-American elected to statewide office by popular vote.

But there is so much further to go before Dr. King's dream becomes a reality. We are still confused about whether race matters. .

Too many Americans are ready to dismiss race as an issue before the inequalities that remain from the days of slavery and segregation have been corrected.

This confusion is nowhere more evident than in the Bush White House. President Bush gives every sign that he is a tolerant and empathetic man. He was raised that way by Yankee parents who found repugnant the cruel bigotry of the South during Dr. King's day.

As a practical matter, Mr. Bush understands the political power of the black vote. He doesn't expect a majority of black voters to desert the Democratic Party, which they have found more hospitable since the days of FDR and Lyndon Johnson. But he doesn't want them mobilized against him. That's part of why he cut Trent Lott loose after the former Senate GOP leader's nostalgic remarks about Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist bid for president.

But now what?

Mr. Bush has resubmitted the nomination of a judge already rejected once by the Senate for sharing some of Mr. Lott's racial insensitivities, and has thrust the White House into a high-profile Supreme Court case over the University of Michigan's race-influenced admissions.

Granted, some advocates on the other side of these issues are too ready to label any opponent a racist. The problem is that the nation hasn't progressed enough beyond its past to allay all such suspicions.

For example, not one of the 100 senators is black. None of the 50 governors is black. Blacks are disproportionately punished with the death penalty, and more likely than whites to be pulled over by police on the highway. They are overrepresented in the ranks of the poor and families without health care.

After 140 years, Mr. Lincoln is still not welcome in Richmond -- even as a statue.

"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, `When will you be satisfied?'" Dr. King told the Lincoln Memorial crowd. "We will not be satisfied," he said, "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Quite a ways to go yet.

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