The Corner

Race, Race, Everywhere Race

I’ve been harping on the New York Times. (Is that hate speech? Anti-Irish?) Will continue just a bit. The other day, some readers of ours were aghast at a headline in the Times: “Romney Adopts Harder Message for Last Stretch — Nod to White Workers.” In this rotten period, it is almost impossible to campaign. You can’t say anything — not if you’re a Republican — without being accused of racism. And this accusation, of course, is the most damaging in the American arsenal.

You could campaign against McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, or Kerry — barely. But you can’t campaign against Barack Obama. Evidently, the Republican party has to refrain from politics until the Obama moment is over.

In two columns last week, I lamented the racialization of — well, everything. Bill Maher, commenting on Obama, said, “In many ways — especially for progressives — he is too white for them. He plays golf, he’s too cozy with bankers. But when it comes to knowing how to fight, he’s black.” Two high-school choruses in the Atlanta area said they were prevented from singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — because they were judged not “diverse enough.”

Nothing escapes the racial brush, even music.

In a burst of bitter hyperbole, I referred to race as “our national god.” It is to “almighty skin color” that “we all bow down.” Later, I got to thinking about the phrase “our national god” — and remembered the Nobel lecture of Albert John Lutuli.

He was a South African, and a great man. A Christian leader, a Zulu chief, a president of the African National Congress. Lutuli was a man of nonviolence, and such men had to give way to other, different men. This is an interesting story.

Anyway, Lutuli won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1960. In his lecture, he explained his participation in public life: “As a Christian and patriot, [I] could not look on while systematic attempts were made, almost in every department of life, to debase the God-factor in man . . . To remain neutral in a situation where the laws of the land virtually criticized God for having created men of color was the sort of thing I could not, as a Christian, tolerate.”

About apartheid South Africa, he said, “It is a museum piece in our time, a hangover from the dark past of mankind, a relic of an age which everywhere else is dead or dying. Here the cult of race superiority and of white supremacy is worshiped like a god.”

In my book on the prize, I observe that “Lutuli said one of the funniest and most graceful things ever uttered at a Nobel prize ceremony” — in his acceptance speech, not his lecture. (There were two separate speeches in those days.) South Africa’s interior minister, he said, “expressed the view that I did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize . . . Such is the magic of a peace prize, that it has even managed to produce an issue on which I agree with the Government of South Africa.”

Humility, I should have noted above, was part of Lutuli’s greatness.

There is probably no escaping race in human affairs — even in America, a nation of principles and ideals, of E pluribus unum. Especially in America, with its legacy of slavery? (A legacy that many other nations have as well. Legacy, hell: In places such as Sudan, slavery still occurs.) I like the idea of a melting pot. Other people can’t stand it, wanting mosaics and quilts and whatnot. In any case, I hope we all see the day when Americans bend the knee less before almighty race.

And wouldn’t it be strange if we emerged from the Obama era more rubbed raw, racially, than before? It would have been better, I believe, for the first black president to have been a conservative. That way, you could have criticized the president with abandon — without having the scarlet R slammed onto your chest.