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.
But they were not exactly singled out in the 2006 campaign. Even more popular GOP targets were two white Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., for example, ran an ad warning that if Democrats won the House, "Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank."
Republicans also trumpeted the danger of Senate committees being taken over by such villainous liberals as Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Carl Levin and Patrick Leahy -- every one a Caucasian male. The biggest Republican devil, of course, is Hillary Clinton.
As for Reyes, it wasn't stereotypes about Hispanic brainpower that got him labeled a lightweight. It was a December interview with Congressional Quarterly which revealed he didn't know al Qaeda is a Sunni group and Hezbollah is a Shiite one. Most people don't know those things, but most people are not in charge of a committee that has a key role in the war against terrorism.
Is it fair to judge a politician on a single pop quiz on foreign affairs? Maybe not, but Democrats didn't mind when a radio host pulled that trick in 1999 on George W. Bush, who whiffed when asked to name the president of Pakistan and the prime minister of India.
As for the claim that black politicians are dogged by suspicions that they are dumb, it depends on which politicians you're talking about. Nobody seems to think Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., suffers from an IQ deficit. Or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Or former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Or former Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn.
Where are the Latino leaders who are being pigeonholed as dummies? It certainly never happened to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. About the only one with a reputation of lacking smarts is Alberto Gonzales, who got it the old-fashioned way -- he earned it.
But maybe I'm naive. For years, Democrats have been saying that President Bush is a dimwitted yahoo with an extremist agenda. It never occurred to me they're just prejudiced against Texans.