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Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 7 Shevat, 5761

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

Sensitivity police

The Democrats are intent on racializing every issue -- OLD-FASHIONED crimes -- perjury, obstruction of justice, and illegal fundraising -- may draw lots of yawns in Washington today, but there's a new offense that the town takes with great seriousness: insensitivity.

Four nominees for the Bush cabinet have already been indicted, more or less, by a jury of Democratic politicians and columnists: Gale Norton, for arguing (somewhat murkily) that the cause of states' rights lost a lot when it allied itself with the cause of slavery; Donald Rumsfeld, for neglecting to criticize President Nixon during one of Nixon's bigoted rants at the White House; Christie Whitman, for allowing herself to be photographed smiling while frisking a black suspect; and John Ashcroft, for a long list of sensitivity violations.

The use of insensitivity as a political standard comes from America's campus culture. In various college codes, offenses have included "insensitivity to the experience of women," "attitudes" about gays that develop into "beliefs," and "disrespectful facial expressions." This is the stuff of satire, but it is also a very effective tool of intimidation. Fuzzy but enforceable standards keep everyone off balance, since nobody really knows what constitutes a sensitivity violation. Because hurt feelings are proof that an offense has occurred, everyone accused is already guilty. Better to keep your head down and accept the local political orthodoxy.

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, sees where this is going. "If Ashcroft's opponents prevail," he writes, "national politics will take on the cast of campus debates on race. It will become out of bounds, essentially, to disagree with liberals: Conservatives are offensive to black groups, therefore they are insensitive, therefore they are unfit for office."

Payback time. Ashcroft, of course, has been the main target. Though he did not cover himself in glory by opposing Judge Ronnie White and calling him "pro-criminal," there is zero evidence on the table of racist intent. His opposition may have had more to do with law-and-order politics in a tough election. Or perhaps it was a payback for White's key role, as a state legislator, in frustrating Governor Ashcroft's proposed law to restrict abortion.

No matter. For two months now the Democrats have talked about nothing but race, so Ashcroft's opposition must have been racial. Apart from heavy insinuations by Ted Kennedy, important Democrats are willing to skip the charge of racism and simply indict Ashcroft for the broad new crime of insensitivity. Sen. Chuck Schumer knows how this game is played: "I don't think he's a racist, but at certain instances, I don't think he has shown enough sensitivity." This, of course, allows the connection between the words "Ashcroft" and "racism" to linger in every mind, though the connection is piously denied. It also indicates a way for worried conservatives to clear themselves of the potentially career-killing charge of racial insensitivity: Just abandon opposition to the alarming racial plans of the left (quotas, preferences, identity politics, hate-crime laws). Nobody who favors quotas has ever been accused of racial insensitivity.

Sometimes it seems as though the Democrats are intent on racializing every issue in sight, from the environment to healthcare. Kennedy, in Los Angeles to support a janitors' strike by mostly Hispanic workers, said, "This is a civil rights issue." No, Ted, it was a union issue. You can be for or against the strike without being racist. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People counts congressmen as voting against civil rights if they voted for Bill Clinton's impeachment. Clinton was quick to categorize the Ronnie White case as a racial offense. And party leaders decisively moved to racialize the Florida election, arguing that blacks (not poor voters or voters in Democratic areas) were consciously singled out for unfair treatment. If there is any clear evidence of this, apart from stray anecdotes, it has yet to surface in the media.

Also under the heading of the racialization of everything comes the current fascination with "subtle racism." As racism fades, those who can't accept the good news are sure that it is still there, just below the surface, posing as welfare reform or color-blind politics. The New York Times, a frequent carrier of this message, ran a recent Page 1 article on welfare reform headlined "A War on Poverty Subtly Linked to Race." A long sympathetic article in the Los Angeles Times features an "expert" on subtle racism, David Wellman, who explains that lower rates of granting tenure to black professors is one of the nine telltale clues to the condition. A study last year at the University of Michigan, where affirmative action is under intense fire, announced that whites who think that blacks, like people of all races, should work their way up through hard work and achievement are actually racists of "the subtle, contemporary kind." This is not what mainstream social science is finding, but if a janitors' strike and environmental policy can be adapted for political purposes, why not research too?

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


01/22/01: Found in the White House dumpster on Jan. 20, 2001
01/16/01: New slogan belies what the Army really is
01/08/01: The black dissent
01/03/01: The year's best quips on life, politics – and golf
12/19/00: Supreme confusion
12/11/00: Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election facts
12/05/00: Savage fantasy
11/27/00: Victims of the year get the recognition they deserve
11/20/00: It's a chad, chad, chad, chad world
11/13/00: The election rhetoric is running much too high
11/07/00: How yesterday's hero becomes tomorrow's heel
10/30/00: Would Bush's Supreme Court picks make a difference?
10/24/00: Yankees, go home!
10/17/00: Un-American activity?
10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

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