Maryland gubernatorial candidates, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Robert L. Ehrlich exchanged heated barbs on the issue of affirmative action during last week's debate.
From the outset, Kennedy Townsend was on the offensive, attacking Ehrlich for supporting need-based, rather than race-based affirmative action.
"He opposes affirmative action based on race," she barked. "Well, let me tell you something, slavery was based on race. Lynching was based on race. Discrimination is based on race. Jim Crow was based on race. And affirmative action should be based on race." The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
In effect, Kennedy Townsend was saying that affirmative action should mirror the racial discrimination of the past by sorting people based on race, rather than merit. Didn't the civil rights legislation teach us that people must be judged on merit, not the color of their skin? Wasn't the point of that momentous movement to reward individual merit, rather than to embrace the idea that all members of a particular race or gender are victims and by implication, inferior?
It is not surprising that Kennedy Townsend would adapt such a reductive view of blacks. She has made a career by distilling complex issues into sound bites. And ever since she began falling behind Ehrlich in the polls, her rhetoric has tended to be about as subtle as a brick to the head. What was disconcerting was the casual ease with which the audience members applauded her view on affirmative action.
They clapped. They cheered. They whooped it up. Lost in the hubbub was a rather profound point: Black people are more than just a race, and more than victims of a centuries-old crime. We are complex human beings. To reduce us to little more than the color of our skin is morally reprehensible. Yet this is precisely what Kennedy Townsend was advocating when she demanded that since slavery was based on race, affirmative action should be based on race. Someone really ought to tell her of Albert Einstein's famous observation: "You cannot solve a problem with the same sort of thinking that created the problem."
By contrast, Ehrlich's conception of affirmative action seems far more concerned with actually creating a more equitable society. It is not about baiting the voters with race. It is about serving the most needy among us - regardless of their skin pigmentation.
Get it? Ehrlich does not presume that all blacks are victims just by virtue of their skin color. That shows an essential respect for black Americans - not as a color, but as humans, capable of succeeding on their own merits.
It should also be noted that Ehrlich was flanked during the debate by his running mate, Michael Steele, who also happens to be black. Together they are attempting to create a genuine give and take between the Republican leadership and the issues that black Americans rate as their chief concerns. Step one is adapting the viewpoint that black Americans are not inherently inferior - that is, that they are capable of succeeding and failing on their own.
How sad that Ehrlich was booed for espousing this view. And how sad that we continue to be so easily baited on the issue of affirmative action.