Topeka Capital-Journal: Mellinger: Race stealing spotlight

Topeka Capital-Journal: Mellinger

Race stealing spotlight

Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy has pushed lingering racial tension to the forefront of public awareness, forcing us to reckon with an uncomfortable fact of American life.

Much of the time, we tell ourselves race is a non-issue and go through our daily routines pretending to be colorblind. Plenty of research, including a recent AP-Yahoo News poll of voter attitudes, has shown that race really does matter. It informs how we view the world around us and how we respond to the people we encounter.

Here in Topeka, one of the historic battlegrounds in the civil rights movement, race should be a familiar topic, one we can discuss easily, but it is not. Kansans are no different from any other Americans. We regard talking about cultural difference as impolite, as if giving it the silent treatment will make it go away.

What’s more, anyone who broaches the topic risks being accused of playing the race card. Yet in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, both Democrats and Republicans are injecting racial slights into the election.

For example, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., drew a parallel between rhetoric at Republican rallies and the incendiary remarks Gov. George Wallace, of Alabama, made during the civil rights movement. Sen. John McCain said he found the comments deeply hurtful.

Then, after Gen. Colin Powell said he would back Obama, conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh insisted that Powell endorsed Obama only because they both are black. As pundit David Gergen pointed out, no one accuses a white person who endorses a white candidate of doing so on the basis of race.

So here we stand 54 years after the landmark school desegregation ruling that put Topeka on the civil rights map and altered the racial landscape in America. Our social progress is indisputable. After all, the son of a black man is leading in some presidential polls.

Yet in politics, explicitly raising the issue of race continues to be divisive and destructive. It is a weapon that causes pain and demeans.

In daily life, the dilemma of race still leaves us scratching our heads, struggling to find ways to talk about it without giving or taking offense. The older we are, the more likely this is to be true.

And this is cause for optimism. Just as racial intolerance has lessened over time, to the point that a biracial American can be accepted as a major party nominee, racial anxiety will continue to dissipate with each generation.

In just a few years, young voters are going to have little patience with the kind of old-style racial posturing that has been grabbing headlines this election year.

Gwyn Mellinger is the chair of the department of communications and mass media at Baker University. 


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