During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush regularly denounced the "soft bigotry" of low expectations. He was referring to the practice of expecting less of black students than we do of others. It was a powerful and intelligent critique considering how difficult it is to address the very real problems of black underachievement in our schools. I think there's a similar problem in American politics. Too many people are afraid of holding black politicians to the same standard as everybody else.
Exhibit A: Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., a woman whose every spoken word is a veritable pinata of imbecility; attack it from any angle and something stupid will drop out.
McKinney recently told a Berkeley radio station that she believes the Bush Administration knowingly allowed the Sept. 11 hijackers to murder thousands of Americans because the administration would be able to make a tidy profit on the subsequent war on terrorism.
Noting that "persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new war," McKinney said: "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th. ... What did this administration know and when did it know it ...? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? ... What do they have to hide?"
When confronted with her comments, McKinney backpedaled a millimeter: "I am not aware of any evidence showing that President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9-11. A complete investigation might reveal that to be the case."
That's true, it might. A similarly complete investigation might reveal that McKinney runs a factory that makes puppies into coats. Or it might reveal that she spends her weekends on multistate killing sprees. But, in America, we usually don't accuse people of murder without being aware of "any evidence."
McKinney didn't acquire her gift for mixing asininity and nastiness overnight. In 1991, when she was still in the Georgia legislature, just 16 hours into the Gulf War she denounced the effort as the "most inane use of American will that I have witnessed in a long time. ... I will not be led to the slaughterhouse for any one of George Bush's reasons."
Or recall last fall when a Saudi prince tried to give $10 million to New York City's 9/11 fund - in order to buy some media exposure and to suggest that the United States had it coming. Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani returned the money with a straightforward explanation: "There's no excuse for murder, and to suggest otherwise is unacceptable." But McKinney couldn't resist the scent of blood money.
She wrote the prince a three-page letter asking that he send the cash her way. "I would like to ask you to consider assisting Americans who are in dire need right now," McKinney wrote. "I believe we can guide your generosity to help improve the state of Black America and build better lives."
With 15 of the 19 hijackers coming from Saudi Arabia, McKinney publicly sided with someone who claimed we'd invited the attack.
"Let me say that there are a growing number of people in the United States who recognize, like you, that U.S. policy in the Middle East needs serious examination." The letter went on to assure the prince that if he gave her the money it would go toward saving affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, something the Saudi rulers no doubt care passionately about.
Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with saying what you believe. But McKinney wants to hide behind the hard bigotry of her own expectations. She has a longstanding record of saying that she should not be held accountable for what she says.
In the wake of the Saudi prince affair, for example, she was roundly criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike. "I have been attacked for speaking," she responded in an op-ed for the Washington Post. McKinney concluded there was only one explanation for the flack she was receiving. "I believe," she wrote, "that when it comes to major foreign policy issues, many prefer to have black people seen and not heard."
This must strike Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as an odd thing to say.
Perhaps it was Jesse Jackson who introduced the art of claiming criticism was racist. When Jackson ran for president, he often claimed that if you questioned his qualifications, you might be racist. What happens to democracy when you can't question the qualifications of a candidate?
McKinney is following in Jackson's footsteps. She believes that she has an undiminishable right to say unpopular things. Fair enough. But she also believes that she should not be judged harshly as a result. This, to me, is the real racism. It says that we cannot - dare not - judge nutty black politicians by an objective standard. This is unfair to responsible black politicians of all parties, and it's a real threat to free speech.