THE VICIOUSNESS of a racial attack on a Texas man who was decapitated and had his arm torn off while being dragged behind a pickup truck convinced many people that it was an anomaly. They didn't believe others in America had to fear a similarly despicable crime.
Such stories are supposed to be relegated to our past, back when black people had to fear a lynch mob's noose or a Ku Klux Klan bomb. Well, history is repeating itself.
There have been two copycat incidents within a week of the June 7 slaying of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Fortunately, neither new victim was killed. But the attacks -- Friday in Belleville, Ill., and Saturday in Slidell, La. -- have awakened America to the reality that although racial hatred is usually less visible, it is still powerful enough to bring a town to its knees.
People in Jasper -- black and white -- are left to plead that what happened to Mr. Byrd is not representative of them. In Belleville and Slidell, they are doing the same. But the protests of good people that their reputations have been soiled by the bad provides no solution to evil. Racism must be fought. But with what weapon?
The nation has just ended a year of the self-analysis that President Clinton called his "conversation on race." The series of town hall meetings and panel discussions has not lived up to the hype that preceded it. Mr. Clinton's "One America" panel will continue the effort through the end of this year, but nothing dramatic is expected.
Perhaps America has been spoiled by the specific, tangible results produced earlier by mass movements and government edict -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The remaining work is more difficult -- changing the hearts not only of racists but of those who quietly tolerate racism.
That work is personal. It must go beyond conversation. People must lead by example.
Pub Date: 6/16/98