ANY PROPOSITION, no matter how reasonable it sounds, ought to be reconsidered after enough politicians have paid lip service to it. So it is with the idea that "race" is the biggest issue the country faces.
Restated in various ways, this idea has become such a standard of political speeches, it is barely noticed.
Bill Clinton worked it into the conclusion of both his second inaugural and State of the Union speeches. "The issue of race," along with drugs and ignorance, figured prominently in Newt Gingrich's speech after being re-elected House speaker.
No one would argue that race hasn't been a critical factor in the nation's history, or that racial conflicts don't continue to be a serious problem. But there is something squishy in the rhetoric about race that too often clouds rather than clarifies.
To begin with, there is the way the word is used. Men and women grapple with a host of issues, from sexual harassment in the Army to the joint-custody law fight in the Georgia General Assembly. But you never hear anyone say that gender is a serious problem.
Race, too, is woven into a host of problems. As authors Tom and Mary Edsall put it in "Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics," it crystallizes conflicts over subjects "as diverse as social welfare spending, neighborhood schooling, the distribution of the tax burden, criminal violence, sexual conduct, family structure, political competition and union membership."
All too often, however, race is the excuse and not the reason. While the fact that men or women are different isn't counted as an issue, race becomes the compulsive concern even when other matters are more fundamental.
Thus, in the most famous example of the day, the O.J. Simpson case became a race problem, not a murder problem.
Some racial issues don't even require two races anymore: the most outspoken critic of ebonics in Georgia is Ralph Abernathy III. The battle of state flags, which is supposed to be about race, is currently being waged between Puerto Ricans and Republicans.
When politicians wax rhetorical about race, they do not allude to the ambiguous nature of the problem, sticking instead to unsupported absolutes. What it is about race that makes it so much more difficult than, say, environmental degradation or economic dislocation, is never identified. Instead the proposition put in such a way that different listeners can draw different, frequently self- serving, conclusions.
If Americans are seriously going to "rethink our whole approach to race," as Mr. Gingrich called for, we might want to start by considering the myriad ways a neutral word has been given a negative connotation.
If race in and of itself can be a problem, it stands to reason it could, in different circumstances, be a solution.
Without a multiracial effort, the United States would not have won the Gulf War or brought home the gold at the Olympics.
We understand this implicitly but rarely make a point of it. If
racial harmony is going to move beyond the status of political platitude, we ought to start.
Tom Baxter is political editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Pub Date: 2/14/97