"HOW can you deny that this society is still steeped in racism?" my indignant interlocutor asked. "Look at what's happening in Alabama!"
She was referring to the nasty events in Wedowee, Ala., where a high school principal threatened to cancel a prom to prevent interracial couples from attending. The principal -- who was later stripped of his position -- was also said to have told a biracial student that her birth had been "a mistake." Two weeks ago, the school was torched by an arsonist.
That the whole affair is nauseating is beyond dispute. But also indisputable is its freakishness. America has come so far from its racist past that we now consider it big news when a high-school principal away down south in Dixie disparages interracial romance. The Globe, for instance, has run at least 13 stories on the Wedowee case. Because such ugly episodes are no longer normal, it is newsworthy when one occurs.
Thirty years ago this summer, Congress passed -- by an overwhelming majority -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a landmark on our national journey to racial justice, but America in the 1960s was still encrusted in open, unashamed racism. Two nights after the Civil Rights Act passed in Washington, three young civil rights workers -- Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney -- were shot dead by Ku Klux Klan thugs outside Philadelphia, Miss.
Who would have dreamed in 1964 that a rural Alabama principal would ever be punished for trying to stop interracial dating? Or predicted black mayors governing the country's largest cities? Or black women in Congress? Or the elevation of the plaintiff's attorney in Brown v. Board of Education -- NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall -- to the US Supreme Court?
Thirty years ago, who would have foreseen a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.? Who would have imagined millions of white Americans idolizing black athletes like Michael Jordan, or turning black entertainers -- Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby -- into superstars?
Intolerance hasn't been abolished in America, nor ignorance, nor bigotry. But we are no longer a nation "steeped in racism." In the years since 1964, America has been transformed for the better. Wedowee, Ala., grotesque and shocking, is the exception that proves the rule.
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Speaking of bigots: It looks like Tony Martin, one of the slicker anti-Semites in town, is expanding his circle of friends.
Wellesley professor Tony Martin
The Wellesley College professor of African studies earned local notoriety a couple years back by teaching the historical libel that American Jews were dominant players in the slave trade. (In reality, they barely merited footnote status.) Martin had his students read a Nation of Islam publication titled "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," a volume of pseudo-history so scurrilous that Henry Louis Gates, the renowned director of Harvard's Afro-American studies program, labeled it "one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled."
Martin's Wellesley colleagues find the man despicable and have voted to deny academic credit for his courses. But Martin has found admirers elsewhere.
The Institute for Historical Review, a grotesque outfit that claims the Holocaust was all a hoax, has invited Martin to speak at its Labor Day conference in California. The May-June issue of the institute's bulletin promises that Martin "will describe the storm of controversy that was set off" by his actions at Wellesley. He won't be the only Massachusetts man on the dais: The Holocaust-deniers also promise an appearance by neo-Nazi Fred Leuchter, the Malden engineer they venerate for "proving" that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.
It's no surprise that a herd of Nazi admirers would embrace Martin. Haters of a feather flock together. But why does a purveyor of bigotry and falsehood still have a home on the Wellesley faculty?
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Less grim, but more annoying:
Maybe it's true that the price of gasoline has climbed more steeply than usual this summer -- a gallon of midgrade unleaded is averaging $1.28 at Massachusetts pumps -- and it may even be true that dealers are taking advantage of an oil strike in Nigeria to squeeze a few extra cents out of their customers. But the real gas station ripoff artist is Big Brother.
Taxes account for nearly one-third of that $1.28 you pay for each gallon: 21.5 cents is taken by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and another 18.4 cents by the US government. Consumers would scream if the sales tax were raised from 5 percent to 6 percent. Yet they seem serenely compliant about paying a tax of roughly 32 percent on gasoline.
Maybe that's because they don't realize just how high gas taxes are. And maybe that's because those numbers aren't posted anywhere. If dealers were smart, every gas pump in the state would bear a prominent sign: "Price per gallon includes 18.4 cents federal tax and 21.5 cents state tax."
Let motorists realize they are paying 40 cents in taxes on each and every gallon, and they just might get angry enough to do something about it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)