Color of Our Skin – Or Content of Our Character?

Nearly half a century has passed since Martin Luther King (above) put his wistful vision into words:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Yet skin color remains a vitally important personal feature for many Americans.

Few will admit it, of course. They will find other reasons for their attitudes toward people who don’t look like them.  But the majority of Americans – black and white and every other hue – are acutely aware of external racial differences.

If someone came to see you while you were out and you asked for a description, the first characteristic you would be likely to hear is skin color. He was a black man or a white man, or he looked Hispanic

I was discussing this with a Puerto Rican visitor last week, and we were saying how much of a shock it was to come to America and encounter the deep racial divide. Don’t get me wrong; there is racial prejudice in Jamaica and Puerto Rico. And – in Jamaica at least – there’s a subtle shade prejudice that probably stems from the fact that the mixed-race offspring of white slave owners used to get special privileges.

But in the Caribbean, there is no actual barrier between the races. There never was a law – as there was in several American states until quite recently – banning inter-racial marriage, for example.

The political implications of this uniquely American phenomenon are sobering.

Race is a major political factor in the United States. For decades, the Republican party has followed a “Southern Strategy” which – according to Wikipedia – exploits opposition ….”to desegregation and to the civil rights and women’s movements.”

In remarks at DePaul University last week, Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, conceded that the party had “mistreated” their relationship to blacks over four decades by pursuing this “‘Southern Strategy.”

Black Americans have no reason to vote for Republicans, Steele (photo above) admitted.

On the other side of the issue, many Republicans see no political advantage in wooing racial minorities. There are three times as many white American voters as Hispanic and black voters combined. So, if the GOP can get enough white voters riled up against a black President, they might be able to regain power.

That’s why Republican leaders are catering to the racist Tea Party movement. But you won’t hear that on TV.

The ugly skeleton in the Republicans’ closet is hidden behind a populist smoke screen. You will hear about the national debt (even though the biggest deficits were amassed during Republican governments) and the threat of  “big government” (even though government growth has been greatest under Republican presidents), bank bailouts (initiated under President Bush) and so on.

Of course it makes no sense! It doesn’t have to. The people involved – political leaders and Tea Party protesters – know what they’re really teed off about, and it has nothing to do with “fiscal policy.”

But the charade continues. Steele’s contrition – and the fact that 32 black Republicans, a record-high number, are running for the U.S. House of Representatives – should fool nobody. It’s just political theater. Republican strategists do this kind of thing as a matter of course. They distract the larger voting public with gimmicks while they secretly reassure racists among the white majority.

It would be a sad development indeed if this cynical strategy works in November.