The Breakfast Table

Tough Questions and Throwaway Gestures

Hey Brent,

Now you’re confusing things. I’m all for paying respect to minority groups. I’m all for equal access. I’m committed to the goal of better race relations. And I resent the insinuation that I might not be. If I’ve devoted myself to anything in my life as a journalist, it’s to advocating what I call “integration.” (I still use that old-fashioned word because I think it best captures what I believe in—the still distant ideal of a truly shared, interracial community.) Check out my book, or just about anything else I’ve written in the past decade: It’s all about figuring out how to make what you call “the browning of the nation” a smoother, happier process. But paying respect and pandering are not the same thing, and what the presidential candidates are doing is pandering, pure and simple.

The hard questions on all these issues are about means, in my view, not ends. I know there are still plenty of bigots out there: lots of people who think the black check-out clerk won’t do as good a job as the white one next to her, and some—though a much smaller number, I think—who actually wish black people ill and would go out of their way to harm them. But most Americans, I’m convinced, have come around by now to accepting the goal of racial equality. Just about everybody thinks there should be a healthy share of blacks at top colleges. Most whites know there must be black politicians, black judges, black generals, and black corporate chiefs. And I don’t think most whites want to step in the way of anyone—black, white, or brown—who’s qualified. What’s hard is figuring out how best to achieve these ends, and that’s where I think the candidates—and lots of the rest of us—are ducking the issues.

C’mon, Brent, you can’t think George W.’s pass at the Unity convention amounted to anything serious? I’m pretty enthusiastic about his candidacy, and even I saw that as a throwaway gesture. This is what I mean when I say the fault’s not in the candidates but in ourselves. We’ve got to ask more of these people—on race and all the other issues that we care about.

I don’t think the answers are easy—far from it. But all the more reason why we need some leadership that can face up to the tough questions. Surely, you and I can agree on that?

All best,