Politics & Policy

No Longer Black and White

September 11 changed our internal race relations for good.

America lost many things on 9/11. Some say America lost its soul; others say we lost our freedom; still others argue that we lost some ill-defined “innocence.” I believe we lost something else as well: a sense of America as a black-and-white nation.

I mean this both figuratively and literally. Since at least the late 1950s, the American conversation about tolerance, minority rights, and obligations has been dominated by our view that we were divided into “two Americas,” one black, one white. LBJ’s Great Society in time became defined by its effort to pull blacks into the social and economic mainstream. A generation of left-wing academics, such as Andrew Hacker and Jonathan Kozol, saw America through this binary vision. And, while feminists, gays, and Latinos didn’t see America so monochromatically, they nonetheless tried to appropriate the black civil-rights model. Blacks were the frontline minority in the struggle for progress because America’s sins–bigotry, poverty, family breakdown–fell upon them disproportionately.

The War on Terror, no matter what your attitude toward it, irreparably cracked the black-and-white lens. It reminded whites and blacks alike that we are all Americans. (The Vietnam War, by contrast, seemed to highlight racial and class differences.) And 9/11 made Muslims the new frontline minority.

How government and society deal with Muslims and Muslim Americans is the subject that gets the American Civil Liberties Union and the lawsuit factory working overtime. Editorial boards, Hollywood, and academia are fixated on it. Similarly, most conservative commentators can’t even be bothered to complain about affirmative action or quotas anymore.

There’s nothing sinister about this. It’s predictable and natural. Muslims, at home and abroad, are dominating the news. And “Muslim” issues simply aren’t very analogous to the old racial issues. Despite the efforts of groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations to emulate the black civil-rights model, the simple fact is that Muslim Americans are a different kind of minority.

Consider an unlikely example. The Chicago Tribune recently recounted the tale of the Universal School’s girls’ basketball team. The school is a private Muslim institution. The girls on the team may not be seen by any post-pubescent males unless the girls are wearing full-body robes. That means men and teenage boys cannot attend their games. The problem is that the universe of Muslim schools with girls’ basketball teams in Illinois is pretty limited. So the girls want to set up some games with secular public and private schools–on the condition that no men attend the games. That means no dads, no brothers, and no male staff members allowed in the bleachers.

Whatever your reaction to this, it’s really not comparable to the black experience. These Muslims are asking for segregation–by gender in this case–whereas the black civil-rights movement and its gay and feminist imitators worked against the logic of segregation.

Of course, 9/11 doesn’t explain everything. Welfare reform and the drop in crime removed two of the most galvanizing political issues driving racial debates. President Bush’s decision to drop quotas as a reliable GOP punching bag cooled tempers, too.

There’s also the demographic challenge. As we’ve been told a trillion times, Latinos are the largest American minority. Much nonsense has been written about what will happen when the United States becomes majority nonwhite. But surely the argument that Americans, collectively, owe a debt to blacks will lose some of its resonance in a country where the majority has no lineal connection to slavery or official racism. An interesting peek into this future can be found in the clashes between blacks and Latinos in the L.A. county jails. White racism has barely come up.

America is fortunate that our Muslim population is vastly more moderate than, say, France’s or Denmark’s. We’re debating how to accommodate girls’ basketball teams. Europeans are debating their civilization as some Muslims try to overturn the foundations of secularism and call for the beheading of those who stand in their way.

This doesn’t mean we’re not in for some screaming matches–or worse–as we deal with Muslim Americans as the new frontline minority, or with the dilemmas of Muslim immigration. But those are subjects for a million future columns.

(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services


The Latest