THE past few years have seen an explosion of interest in race and how race and ethnic issues are shaping up in today's America. David Duke, Rodney King, multicultural education, Spike Lee, inner-city homicide rates, Clarence Thomas, questioning certain affirmative-action assumptions, the Malcolm X cap, rap lyrics - are reminders of the old American dilemma.
A recent Atlantic Monthly piece suggesting that most of America's political and social crises can be traced to race may overstate the case. But perhaps not by much. Race is deeply tied to issues of identity, justice, power, history, culture, and fear.
So far, campaign messages in the election year are neutral on race - even ignore it. There has been no overt Willie Horton-esque race-baiting. But there's a rush to appeal to the "mainstream," and little discussion of awkward subjects like bias.
Racial frictions need healing. Blacks still feel prejudice; some whites feel resentment of hiring "quotas." Ferment is found in both groups: Black leadership is attacked, new questions are rising among blacks about blaming all ills on racism. Whites lag behind on race issues, but comfort can be taken in the rejection of David Duke and a consensus for civil rights.
Race tensions may continue. But before one joins a dark chorus of lament about "racist America," we must acknowledge progress. The vast increase of interaction among races in all aspects of life now common in the US was unthinkable 20 years ago. Attitudes have changed.
At the same time, there's more realism about changing historic patterns of ignorance. The US didn't move from slavery to having an African-American chairman of the joint chiefs of staff overnight. The long view is needed. No nation has attempted genuine racial equality before.
Rights are crucial. But race and problems of discrimination, housing, jobs, opportunity won't be solved by elective politics alone. Ideas about racial justice must be formed in moral communities that insist that at a deeper level men and women are profoundly connected as brothers and sisters and are equal in the eyes of God. That, as the Apostle Paul says, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free." This is more than a race or class notion.
Improving the complex problem of race without recourse to moral or religious dimensions isn't easy. Slavery ended through black churches in the south and white churches in the north. Today, a huge reservoir of fairness remains in Americans. Our leaders need to bring that out in us.