John Leo
Old-fashioned crimes -- perjury, obstruction of justice and illegal fund-raising -- 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 been indicted by a jury of Democratic politicians and columnists for senstivity failures: Gail 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 experiences 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 because 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."

John Ashcroft, of course, has been the main target. Though Ashcroft 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 Gov. 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, D-N.Y., 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 health care. Ted 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. Bill 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 One 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 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 racial politics, why not research too?


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.