Christine M. Flowers — The Great Race Debate, revisited


Two white men talked about race recently and, not surprisingly, got into trouble. One was a Supreme Court justice, which goes to show that even the mighty must be careful when treading the racial divide. No matter how good your intentions might be (or perhaps, how bad) you risk being misunderstood by people who make a very good living out of misunderstanding.

Antonin Scalia was the first one to dip his toe into the roiling waters by observing that the Voting Rights Act might have run its course. Section 5 of the act, which places a specific and rather draconian burden on some southern states if they want to make changes to their voting practices, has been challenged in court. Reflecting on the history of the act itself, Scalia made the observation that what appears to be a necessary leveling of the playing field for some could be viewed as a “racial entitlement” for others.

And the skies fell right on his glossy-haired judicial head.

You are never allowed to use the word “racial” within three punctuation marks of the word “entitlement.” That is like a red flag to a bull, inciting the masses to revulsion and revolution. Immediately after he made the comment, newspaper columnists produced 800 word lamentations about how Scalia just didn’t get it, that anyone who questioned the need for Section 5 was unworthy of a position on the high court, and that the best thing you could say about him was that at least he wasn’t a closet racist. The implication was, of course, that any other justice who might find that the VRA had outlived its usefulness was as racist as the Italian fellow, just not as sincere.

Frankly, I think this is just another way of shutting down the debate we were supposed to be having since Barack Obama took the stage in Philadelphia and told us about his grandmother and how she was afraid of black people like him.

Anyone who has read this column in the past knows about my father, Ted, who went to Mississippi in 1967 and registered African-Americans (who were then called, without any mean to offend, “negroes”) for the vote and public office. The spittle on his face from angry white folk and his run in with the Klan were proof enough for him that the Voting Rights Act was anything but an “entitlement.” Three dead boys in a Philadelphia, Miss., ditch, and a murdered white woman named Viola Liuzzi proved it, too.

But despite the protestations of those who have an interest in keeping us divided along color lines, that was a different time. Racism exists, and in some hearts it flourishes, but there is little evidence that in the year 2013 the states burdened by the special requirements of Section 5 are any worse than, say, Massachusetts which has a relatively low percentage of minority representation and which is not required to get federal permission to change its laws.

All of that so-called empirical evidence presented to Congress when the act was reauthorized in 2006 was stale. Had they taken an updated snapshot of the USA, Scalia’s words might not have seemed so sinister, or stupid.

Which brings me to the other white man who is currently in hot water. Robert Huber of Philadelphia Magazine penned a cover story that inflamed the hearts of anyone with a keyboard and column space in the local Philly media (including his own colleagues.) Huber set about to investigate how white people (probably suburban white people since that is the demographic the magazine sucks up, er, caters to) feel about race. The article is not going to win any awards for excellence. When you conflate “race” with “black” and forget to include Latinos, Asians, and Arabs in the mix, you’re already starting out on the wrong foot.

But Huber was really attacked because he used quotes from anonymous people who said some controversial, stupid and in some cases racist things about people who didn’t look like them. The fact that some of the things they said were right is irrelevant to those who have a vested interest in finding racism under every rock. Or, in the case of Philadelphia Magazine, under every Starbucks chair.

I have no wish to defend the article or the magazine. Neither are really worth much attention, which is why this whole dust-up is really annoying. But I do find it interesting that we are still so schizophrenic about race that we pretend to want a no-holds barred discussion, but when we actually sit down and touch that third rail with our voices or our keyboards we are hosed down as quickly as those brave activists facing Bull Connor.

That may make the professional race debaters feel better about their pristine moral superiority. But, frankly, that’s about all it really does.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at cflowers1961@gmail.com.