Back in the late 1960s, in the heyday of the civil rights movement, I remember a black activist complaining that movies and TV programs treated blacks too respectfully, as if they all resembled Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll -- soft-spoken, noble and almost angelic. We would know things had really changed for the better, he said, when we saw blacks in deodorant commercials, an admission that they could smell bad just like anyone else.
In the political world, that day arrived some time ago. African-American and Latino politicians are subject to the same vicious, slimy, partisan mauling as other candidates, and they generally accept that as part of the fun.
But lately, we keep hearing that such attacks stem not from normal political competition but from lingering bigotry. That was the claim of Rep. James Clyburn, a black Democrat from South Carolina, during last year's congressional campaign, and it has been resurrected by commentator Juan Williams in a recent article in Time magazine.
Clyburn said that when Republicans warned that a Democratic House would give key chairmanships to Charles Rangel of New York and. John Conyers of Michigan, they were unfairly "bringing race into the equation." Williams claimed that by attacking Rangel and Conyers as "radical" and questioning the competence of Silvestre Reyes of Texas to run the House Intelligence Committee, the GOP was exploiting "a racist assumption." The truth, he said, is that questions "about the intellect of black and brown Americans sadly extend from lagging SAT scores to the halls of Congress."
Oh, please. This is like saying that Dan Quayle got ridiculed because he's a blond. Bashing members of the other party as dangerous firebrands is not unique to Republicans. Al Gore routinely portrays the Bush administration as "a renegade band of right-wing extremists." The New York Times recently slammed Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative brethren as the Supreme Court's "radical new majority."
It's no more or less plausible for Republicans to depict Conyers and Rangel as far out of the mainstream. Conyers has, after all, endorsed the impeachment of President Bush, which even most liberals reject. In the latest ratings of Congress, he got a rating of 100 percent from the American Civil Liberties Union and a 4 percent from the American Conservative Union. So did Rangel.