Race in America

Things are changing in America. It is time to recognize it.

Dateline 28 October 2005

The economist, Professor Julian Simon, made two significant predictions: that things will continue to get better and people will continue to complain about them getting worse. His predictions are true, and not just in economics.

Take the question of race in America. The Ku Klux Klan has lost much of the significant influence it once had in the Democrat Party and utterly failed to gain any influence in the Republican Party. Granted, former Klansman Robert Byrd remains a part of the Democrat leadership, but the position he held last time the Democrats ran the Senate was President Pro Tempore, a largely ceremonial job traditionally given to the longest serving Senator in the majority party. He used to hold the much more important job of Majority Leader. Byrd is in his 90s and will face a strong challenge for his Senate seat next year.

Meanwhile, in the real world, away from the Senate, the number of black professional families continues to rise. Tiger Woods has shown that black and mixed race sports professionals are no longer confined to traditional minority ghettoes such as boxing and basketball. He also typifies the rise of mixed race dating and mixed families.

In living memory, some southern states banned mixed marriages and inter-racial sex, until those laws were struck down in the case Loving vs Virginia. It must have taken campaigners some time to find an appellant with such a beautifully appropriate name.

Could the young Condoleeza Rice have imagined that she could rise from the segregated schools of Alabama to be the youngest ever Provost of Stanford? Let alone achieve the further distinctions which have followed, and which may yet follow.

Can Rosa Parks have dreamed, when she refused to move from that seat on the bus, that within her lifetime there would be, successively, two African-Americans appointed as Secretary of State?

This is not to say that Woods, Powell and Rice are typical of today’s African-Americans – any more than Bill Gates or George Bush is typical of white people. Every community produces its exceptional talents. But the point is that just a few decades ago, not one African-American, no matter how talented could have scaled these heights. When golf clubs and universities closed their doors to black people, even the most able faced clearly defined limits to their success.

Did Robert Byrd imagine any of this when he entered the Senate five decades ago? Or did his nightmares focus on more prosaic and small scale advances? He tried to filibuster the civil rights legislation of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson. He voted against both the African-Americans nominated to the Supreme Court. Since one was a radical liberal and the other staunch conservative he is the only Senator to have voted against them both.

But Byrd knows the America that he has fought so hard to preserve – the America of Jim Crow and legally enforced segregation – has been lost. Rosa Parks may have passed on, and Robert Byrd may be hoping to hang on to his Senate seat next year, but he knows that she won and he has lost.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 28 October 2005

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