Let history record that the race-baiting industry died on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2006 courtesy of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's "Chocolate City" oration and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's "You know what I'm talkin' about" rant.
The race-baiting industry has been dangling on the precipice of comic irrelevance for some time. Jesse Jackson's embrace of despots most recently, Hugo Chavez has reduced him to bit-player status, and Louis Farrakhan's "whitey blew up the levee" act after the hurricanes removed all doubt about his seriousness.
And when Al Sharpton decreed that he wanted his daughters to understand that they weren't "'ho's" well, one just wanted to look away. He might as well have come to the event sporting a fluffy Afro and wearing an outfit from "Shaft."
Those eager to exploit differences between blacks and whites in America ignore the fact that the differences have all but vanished. One might as well complain about the gas mileage of a 1959 Edsel.
Nagin's comment was typical of the guy. He says what he thinks even when he hasn't thought. In declaring New Orleans the Chocolate City, he followed the grand tradition of mentioning race in order to silence all imaginable opposition.
The riff for which Nagin apologized a day later was harmless. Nagin is more an entertainment figure than a statesman, just as New Orleans now is more a theme park with a port than a city of consequence although both aspire to greater things in years to come.
Sen. Clinton's assertion that her largely black audience in Harlem ought to "know what I'm talkin' about" regarding plantations was far more damaging, however. She isn't new to politics or the business of talking about race. Her husband understood the importance of appealing to people's nobler motives and aspirations, even when he wanted to manipulate those emotions for base political aims. The Missus didn't bother to appeal to hearts, however. She wanted to whip up some rage. Unfortunately, the plantation quip was more an insult than a call to arms. Had she proceeded to distribute fried chicken and watermelon, she would have achieved perfect condescension.
Tellingly, at least according to the film and sound clips, the crowd stood silent for a good two beats a sure sign the attendees were shocked, embarrassed or unmoved, and that they saw the senator as just another political panderer.
Unlike Nagin, she did not apologize.
Meanwhile, Republicans reacted with typical oafishness. Some used the "Can-you-imagine-what-would-have-happened-if-a-Republican-had-said-that" line, forgetting that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans used the plantation analogy for years against Democrats, eliciting mostly yawns. Others expressed shock and outrage. Few followed the most natural course, which would have been to laugh and beg Nagin and Clinton to do it again.
Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 42 years ago and talked about a dream the kind of dream that appeals to people not because of their skin color, but because of their membership in a unique community of free, faithful and highly ambitious people. Since then, political hacks have denuded the concept of freedom of its core meaning, and faith has surrendered its cachet, but the dream still thrills us.
It thrills us because it appeals to some yearning and hungry inner sense that we can, and should and want to do better than we have done since King died. Nagin and Clinton, in blundering so far over the boundaries of good taste, made it safe for every American to dismiss the do-good paternalism that grips the political classes and to begin the search for something better, nobler and less divisive.
King's "I Have a Dream Speech" provides a good starting point. Even at a time of great urgency and upheaval, he stressed common blessings: "the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence ... a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."
He stressed shared missions: "We cannot walk alone. ... We cannot turn back."
And he looked beyond the storms of contemporary controversy to something more awesome and enduring: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain should be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, 'and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'"
And when he spoke, everyone in America knew what he was talkin' about.