CHICAGO -- Back in the late 1960s, in the heyday of the civil rights movement, I remember a black activist complaining that movies and TV programs treated blacks too respectfully, as if they all resembled Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll - soft-spoken, noble, almost angelic. We would know things had really changed for the better, he said, when we saw blacks in deodorant commercials, an admission that they could smell bad just like anyone else.
In the political world, that day arrived some time ago. African-American and Latino politicians are subject to the same vicious, slimy, partisan mauling as other candidates, and they generally accept that as part of the fun.
But lately, we keep hearing that such attacks stem not from normal political competition but from lingering bigotry. That was the claim of Rep. James E. Clyburn, a black Democrat from South Carolina, during last year's congressional campaign, and it has been resurrected by commentator Juan Williams in a recent article in Time magazine.
Mr. Clyburn said that when Republicans warned that a Democratic House would give key chairmanships to Charles B. Rangel of New York and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, they were unfairly "bringing race into the equation." Mr. Williams claimed that by attacking Mr. Rangel and Mr. Conyers as "radical" and questioning the competence of Silvestre Reyes of Texas to run the House Intelligence Committee, the GOP was exploiting "a racist assumption." The truth, he said, is that questions "about the intellect of black and brown Americans sadly extend from lagging SAT scores to the halls of Congress."
Oh, please. This is like saying that Dan Quayle got ridiculed because he's a blond. Bashing members of the other party as dangerous firebrands is not unique to Republicans. Al Gore, for example, routinely portrays the Bush administration as "a renegade band of right-wing extremists."
It's no more or less plausible for Republicans to depict Mr. Conyers and Mr. Rangel as far out of the mainstream. Mr. Conyers has, after all, endorsed the impeachment of President Bush, which most liberals reject. In the latest ratings of Congress, he got a rating of 100 percent from the American Civil Liberties Union and a 4 percent from the American Conservative Union. So did Mr. Rangel.
But they were not exactly singled out in the 2006 campaign. Even more popular GOP targets were two white Democrats, Nancy Pelosi of California and Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Republicans also trumpeted the danger of Senate committees being taken over by such villainous liberals as Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, Carl Levin of Michigan and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont - every one a Caucasian male.
As for Mr. Reyes, it wasn't stereotypes about Hispanic brainpower that got him labeled a lightweight. It was a December interview with Congressional Quarterly that revealed he didn't know al-Qaida is a Sunni group and Hezbollah is a Shiite one. Most people don't know those things, but most people are not in charge of a committee that has a key role in the war against terrorism.
As for the claim that black politicians are dogged by suspicions that they are dumb, it depends on which politicians you're talking about. Nobody seems to think Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois suffers from an IQ deficit. Or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Or former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Or former Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee.
Where are the Latino leaders who are being pigeonholed as dummies? It hasn't happened to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros. About the only one with a reputation for lacking smarts is Alberto R. Gonzales, who got it the old-fashioned way - he earned it.
But maybe I'm naive. For years, Democrats have been saying that President Bush is a dimwitted yahoo with an extremist agenda. It never occurred to me they're just prejudiced against Texans.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.