It must be the silly season, what else explains the following news items? "A 6-foot Mr. Potato Head statue, one of dozens dotting Rhode Island as part of a tourism campaign, will be taken down because of complaints that the grinning, brown-skinned figure appeared racist," reports the Associated Press. Who knew that vegetables had racial identities?
In another story -- appropriately datelined Moscow (Idaho, that is) -- the AP says, "The University of Idaho has removed a picture of nine students from the top of its Internet site after discovering that it had been altered to replace the heads of two white students with those of two minority students." Idaho is the second university caught doctoring its campus publicity photos. Two weeks ago, the University of Wisconsin had to issue an apology for inserting blacks into its publicity shots, as well. Now we know what happened to all those unemployed Soviet picture editors who could make people appear and disappear according to political whim. They've found jobs on American college campuses.
And finally, the Denver Post reports that organizers will be allowed, after all, to invoke Christopher Columbus' name in a parade to honor the explorer this week, even though city officials tried to coerce the group planning the event to drop any mention of Columbus when a coalition of minority groups protested. American Indian and Hispanic activists argued it was all right to honor Italian heritage, so long as no one referred to one of the most famous Italians of all time. The U.S. Department of Justice apparently agreed, pushing a settlement of the dispute that would have barred Columbus' name and image from the parade. The American Civil Liberties Union intervened, pointing out -- correctly -- that such government coercion violates the First Amendment.
These stories would be amusing but for the fact they reflect a serious problem, the fragile balance needed between being racially sensitive and becoming race-obsessed. Take the Rhode Island Potato Head episode. The ridiculous, brown, fiberglass figure, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, stood outside City Hall in Warwick since May, without incident. But a picture in the local newspaper spawned protests from an East Providence, R.I, affirmative action officer, who said it resembled some of her own collection of racist, antique figurines. The city immediately took down the offending object, which no doubt improved the aesthetic quality of the town but could hardly be justified simply because it rankled one woman, someone who collects racist artifacts, no less.
Surely government officials shouldn't be erecting offensive, racist symbols on public property today -- black-faced lawn jockeys, Mexicans sleeping under sombreros, tomahawk-wielding Indians, etc. But there is a big difference between going out of your way to offend minority groups by playing on racial stereotypes and viewing everything through a racial prism that finds prejudice where none is present or intended. Worse still is the attempt to rewrite history in racially "correct" terms, as both the University of Idaho and Denver city officials tried.
Idaho's population in 1998 was 97 percent white, with only 7,000 blacks and 14,000 Asians residing in the entire state. Is it any wonder given the demographics of the area that few brown faces would appear in pictures taken on campus at the state university? Striving for diversity where little exists is an impossible task, and pretending otherwise is a lie.
So, too, is the effort to deny Christopher Columbus his rightful place in history. Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World is one of the most important feats in human history. No doubt Columbus' exploitation -- even murder -- of the indigenous people he found there was cruel and inhumane. But the practices of many of those indigenous people were far from exemplary either. The Aztecs, whom Cortes conquered barely 28 years after Columbus arrived in the New World, were among the most vicious -- skinning, dismembering, and eating humans in elaborate rituals. And the Aztecs weren't alone. New evidence, published in Nature magazine last month, demonstrates that cannibalism was widely practiced among some Native American tribes (as it was by Stone Age Europeans, among others).
Certainly the viciousness with which one indigenous group attacked, enslaved, and murdered others helps explain why some of the victims collaborated with the European conquerors. Montezuma's quick defeat at the hand of Cortes' tiny band of soldiers is at least partially explained by the Aztecs' own cruel rule.
Racism doesn't explain every barbaric event in human history, any more than it explains totally tasteless outdoor sculptures. The sooner we quit viewing the world through race-colored glasses, the better off we'll be.