One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired. A century and a half later, the issue of race still haunts us.
Back then, most everyone understood that America's bloodiest war -- more than 623,000 dead -- had its roots in race. But race is not a subject Americans like to think about anymore. At every turn, prominent voices try to pretend that since we've achieved a colorblind society, we can forget all that old unpleasantness.
Indeed, some -- including Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, when he proclaimed Confederate History Month last April -- have tried to pretend that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery, just "states' rights." Such willful ignorance tosses aside the fact that the right the Confederate states fought to preserve was the right to own other human beings -- human beings whose skin was black.
Electing a black president was seen by some as proof that we've put all that behind us, but the race-baiting started even before President Obama's inauguration. It's ranged from the relatively subtle (books from right-wing scholars tracing the "rage" of this almost preternaturally calm president to a "Kenyan anti-colonial" worldview) to the downright crude (depictions of Obama in African tribal dress, with a bone through his nose).
And when someone points this out, what happens? The "race is not an issue" crowd howls about "playing the race card." So last year, when the NAACP condemned "racist elements" within the tea party movement, U.S. News and World Report columnist Peter Roff compared the group to infamous segregationists Lester Maddox and "Bull" Connor. Pundit George Will called the resolution "left-wing McCarthyism."
So apparently the folks depicting Obama with a bone through his nose aren't racist, but those calling them out are. Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.
The unfortunate truth is that race does still matter in American society. While civil rights laws got rid of the most overt segregation, the effects of our nation's long history of discrimination -- against not only African-Americans but also Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and others -- are still vividly apparent in communities of color. Compared to whites, people of color remain far more likely to be unemployed, to have little or no accumulated wealth and savings, and far less likely to own their own home, to pick a few obvious indicators.
Current and proposed policies will only exacerbate these differences. Congress recently gave the very rich an $11.5 billion-a-year break on estate taxes, while pending budget cuts threaten assistance that helps the poor feed their families and keep the heat on during cold winter months.
In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln urged America to "bind up the nation's wounds," and do so "with malice toward none; with charity for all." A century and a half later, we would do well to heed his words. So far, we haven't quite managed it.
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