THE CHARGE WAS SO FAMILIAR, the scenario so ritualistic, that much of the public just tuned it out. The Congressional Black Caucus was calling Sen. Jesse Helms a racist—again. Yet as tired as the charge of racism sometimes seems, it still stings. It worked in this case to shame Mr. Helms, as it works every day in countless other settings—even when it isn't stated explicitly—to shame white people and dictate decisions made by politicians, corporate executives, and ordinary citizens.
To a degree, of course, this is a good thing: social opprobrium discouraging distasteful behavior. But too often, the need people feel to appear virtuous on race issues actually does little to advance the interests of minorities—and in many instances, it interferes disastrously.
The Helms incident revealed again, in case anyone had forgotten, just how frivolously the R-charge can be leveled. The brouhaha began earlier this month when the North Carolina Republican declared his opposition to the nomination of former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D., Ill.), who is black, to be U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. Part of Mr. Helms's concern, he said, had to do with ethics: Ms. Moseley-Braun has been accused of diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for clothing and luxury vacations for herself and a former boyfriend.
A second part of Mr. Helms's objection was about Ms. Moseley-Braun judgment in matters diplomatic: She and her boyfriend had traveled several times to Nigeria to pay court to now-deceased dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. And then there was an old personal grudge. As Mr. Helms was foolish enough to admit to the press, he is still smarting over a speech Ms. Moseley-Braun gave in the Senate in 1993 that successfully blocked a favorite bill of his sanctioning the emblem of the Daughters of the Confederacy—an emblem that happened to include the Confederate flag.
Mr. Helms's opposition to Ms. Moseley-Braun's nomination met a storm of protest. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart immediately denounced him; Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle followed suit. "The array of antiminority sentiment expressed almost each week now by Republicans is historic," Mr. Daschle declared. "It is very dangerous for this country and very, very harmful to the progress we've made on minority rights."
Such charges would be laughable if they weren't so potent—a harbinger, apparently, of Democratic strategy in the coming election year. No sooner were the Democrats done savaging Mr. Helms than they turned on Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, whose offense had been to derail Mr. Clinton's nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench.
To anyone who knows Washington, what Mr. Ashcroft did was simply politics as usual. Faced with a tough re-election campaign next year, he enlisted his colleagues to defeat a nominee he considered "pro-criminal" and squeamish about the death penalty. But to Reps. William Clay (D., Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, opposition to Judge White was nothing less than an "evil, racist act." Angry black leaders in Missouri planned a protest rally at the courthouse where the Dred Scott slavery case was argued. President Clinton echoed the charge of bias, and Mr. Ashcroft found himself on the defensive. "An accusation of prejudice or racism is meant to hurt, and it does hurt," he said. Once again, the R-charge had proved all but irrefutable and—just as the Democrats hoped—bitterly polarizing.
To be sure, not all accusations of bigotry are frivolous; there is still plenty of prejudice in America. But doing right by race has become a universal shibboleth of virtue, and the appeal is as strong for Republicans as Democrats. Hardly a week goes by when George W. Bush doesn't visit a black church or a ghetto school or have his picture taken with a Hispanic child. In part he does this to attract minority voters. But Mr. Bush also knows—and his staff has acknowledged—that this show of concern is a sure way to endear him to white swing voters, who have come to see racial sensitivity as the hallmark of a man's decency.
Isn't this a good thing? Yes, it is, or would be, if it actually benefited anyone. But the problem is that displays of racial virtue are not the same thing as helping disadvantaged minorities. Consider the three major race-related initiatives of the past 35 years: the War on Poverty, busing, and affirmative action. All three enjoyed wide support among liberal whites, who felt passionately that the nation should do whatever it could to make up for the past and remedy racial inequality. But none of these policies ended up doing much for their intended beneficiaries. Most of the provisions of the Great Society were bureaucratic boondoggles from the start. Two decades of busing have had virtually no effect on black educational outcomes. And even affirmative action's staunchest defenders now acknowledge that it can do almost nothing for the disadvantaged blacks who need help most: poor, ill-educated, ghetto-bound blacks who have no access to elite universities or corporate jobs.
Still, even in the face of these failures, well-intentioned whites continue to defend all three initiatives. Why? Because, as Shelby Steele argues so powerfully, even if these policies don't work, they make supporters feel good about themselves and their racial virtue. In too many instances, they serve the psychological needs of whites more than the material needs of blacks and other minorities.
No wonder, then, that so many racial issues of the last few years have been largely symbolic—from the number of black actors in Hollywood to stiffer penalties for "hate crimes." Meanwhile, for all our talk of doing right, the real challenges facing black America go unattended. Well-meaning university administrators sleep easier when they boost their diversity numbers. But as the nagging gap in black-white school performance shows, this does little to advance the educational development of black America—still the only avenue to any kind of meaningful equality.
Today as in the past, the charge of racism can be a useful goad, a reminder of America's core ideals and its aspiration to do better by all its citizens. Like any powerful moral claim, the accusation is easily misused, and it's important to resist that kind of abuse. But even harder is to figure out how to channel the nation's racial shame and guilt in a useful direction—so that what we say and the incentives the government creates actually make a difference for the people who still need help. And so far, despite 35 years of self-righteous bickering, we haven't proved very good at that.