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Debate candidates, not their race

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, February 7, 2005

As I relaxed in Starbucks on Friday, sipping my free trade coffee and scanning the latest opinion journalism, hell finally froze over – I agreed with a New York Times editorial. Well, at least part of it.

The Feb. 4 editorial “The Senate and Mr. Gonzales” offers a predictable criticism of the nominee for attorney general, his role in “in paving the way for the abuse and torture of prisoners by American soldiers and intelligence agents,” and the Republican advocates of his confirmation. A third of the way through the editorial, the Times quotes Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who seizes the opportunity of Democrats rejecting Gonzales to mention that he “loves the Hispanic people,” cautioning that Hispanic Americans were “sensing there’s something unfair going on.”

Hatch deftly, though unsubtly, plays the race card to allude to the Democratic tendency to muster alarming strength to oppose the president’s minority judicial nominations, as the refusal to allow Miguel Estrada an up or down vote demonstrated in 2003. At the height of the commotion, an internal memo sent between high-ranking Democratic senators suggested that Estrada, considered well-qualified by the ABA, was “especially dangerous” because “he is Latino.” Why would Estrada’s ethnicity even be an issue, particularly for a party that champions the progress of minorities?

The entire flap reveals the racial politics embodied in the rhetoric of both parties makes an utter mockery of sensible debate. Race-baiting is a staple of Democratic campaigning whose excesses are now so routine that a new commercial portraying a fat corporate-looking Republican throwing an innocent black man into shackles would scarcely elicit a whimper of opposition from the left side of the aisle. Party leadership naturally thinks strategically, and the black vote is such an essential asset for Democrats that applauding the accomplishments of Clarence Thomas or Thomas Sowell, two prominent conservative blacks, would be a sign of the apocalypse.

Instead of taking the high road and allowing Democrats to implode under their own weight, the new Republican tactic is to cry hypocrisy every time a conservative minority encounters less than fawning adoration from the left. To be blunt, they should can it. For every thoughtful treatise on the importance of creating a society in which judgments of individual merit should be color-blind, the Republicans do more damage to themselves when they lower their rhetoric to the level of futile race-baiting. A principled conservative should have the guts to acknowledge the color of one’s skin should never serve as a buffer from criticism, no matter how tempting it is to win short-term political points.

Ultimately, I’d prefer the demise of race-based politics, race-baiting and other forms of racial division made in the name of empowering one party that claims to advance the aggregate “interests” of an entire ethnicity. During the current round of cabinet appointments, Democrats have retained the higher ground by sticking to their original criticisms of the policies advanced by Condoleeza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, and as much as it makes me grind my teeth to admit, the Times is correct to call the race issue “irrelevant here.”

Republicans need to take steps towards creating a world that actually adheres to the ideals they promote. On the issue of affirmative action, whose relevance is past its prime, conservatives hope Bush’s judicial nominations will sway the tide in their favor and hopefully overturn a number of linchpin social policies the Democratic left has successfully imposed. The judicial strategy is no secret, the vast right wing conspiracy is much more upfront than many assume.

However, overturning such an entrenched policy and embracing color blind admissions and hiring standards, while a worthy goal, has the potential to backfire if we do not first address our irrational obsession with racial politics. Republican leadership is just as strategically minded as its opponents, and recent attempts to paint Democrats as anti-Hispanic (or anti-conservative Hispanic) reveals many consider the ethnic group a potential ally for upcoming elections. If maintaining their political power remains their paramount goal, then highlighting the detrimental effects of affirmative action stands as an obstacle that could shift the largest growing ethnic group into the Democratic camp.

Instead, Republicans will sit back, cross their fingers and hope the courts let affirmative action expire without their party’s reputation suffering collateral damage. This scenario may well play out in reality, and one can only hope by the time conservatives start winning these key battles in the culture wars, our culture will consider issues such as diversity at the expense of meritocracy a quaint anachronism.

A post-racial society is more likely to unfold if its chief proponents stop pouring gas on the fire by emulating the rhetoric of the party that capitalizes on racial fear-mongering with impunity.

Bill Rinner is a senior economics major. He can be contacted at wrinner@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.