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USA Today and the Governors

To celebrate Martin Luther King Day, the nation's newspaper did some racial nose-counting.

11:01 PM, Jan 22, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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CELEBRATING Martin Luther King Day gets done in different ways. If there are delightful afternoon games all over the NBA and solemn ceremonies at the White House, there is also, in certain quarters, an angry score-settling and wound-picking that can't be confused with "celebration" in any way.

That the MLK holiday has turned into an occasion for diatribes against the American history of racial oppression, rather than a celebration of our partial emergence from it, is one of the things that local opponents--particularly in Arizona and New Hampshire--warned against when agitation for the holiday was at its height in the early 1980s. Lingering worries on this score are surely part of the reason the holiday has never received more than a lukewarm reception in the country at large. (Another is that it is badly scheduled, coming two weeks after the winter glut of holidays. Those who have suggested that it ought to be moved to August, to commemorate King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, have a point.)

MLK Day's utility for political activists is not a reason to distrust it per se. The same can be said of Labor Day, which was the occasion for socialist and even Communist gatherings in the decades after it became a legal holiday in 1894. Nor is it necessarily warranted to complain that the holiday promotes ethnic division by offering a special day to one particular minority group; the same can be said of Columbus Day, whose passage in 1909 surely owes as much to the voting clout of Italian-Americans as to any wish to memorialize America's discovery.

But there is something tiresome and ritualistic about some of the annual MLK Day coverage. This year's worst example came from USA Today, which covered half its front page with an article headlined "These are America's governors. No blacks. No Hispanics." Is that such a serious problem? People tend to vote (for various reasons, not just racism) for people who are like them. Where majorities are black and Hispanic, blacks and Hispanics benefit. A decade ago, virtually every single large city in the country had a black mayor. Hawaii always has two Asian senators and an Asian governor. (Although one is hard-pressed to recall USA Today's having cast either of these as evidence of racism, let alone as a national tragedy.)

Right now, it happens that there is not a single state in the country where blacks or Hispanics are in the majority. But even so, America has elected blacks and Hispanics to governors' mansions before. Does anyone doubt that California will one day (soon) have a Hispanic governor?

And what would USA Today have us do to bring that eventuality about more quickly? Establish quotas for elected officials?

As Peter Nozick pointed out in "The Holocaust in American Life" (1999), Americans are great prodders of others' memories, but have never seen fit to establish a museum of slavery on our own soil. More reckoning with America's racist past is certainly necessary, but it's far from clear that Martin Luther King Day is serving this purpose. There are better ways to promote historical accountability than through gubernatorial nose-counting and other forms of holiday browbeating.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Correction Appended, 1/24/02: The article originally read: "Those who have suggested that it ought to be moved to April, to commemorate King's 1963 'I Have a Dream' speech, have a point." It has since been changed to read: "Those who have suggested that it ought to be moved to August, to commemorate King's 1963 'I Have a Dream' speech, have a point."