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Defending George Allen

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- I never thought I'd be defending Republican Sen. George Allen -- let alone against charges that he's a racist.

Frankly, I'm not totally comfortable in the role. I'm bothered by what seems to be Allen's rather checkered past on racial issues. He used to display a Confederate flag in his home and his office. As governor of Virginia, he issued a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month. And, while serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, he opposed a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

And I recently criticized Allen for what I thought were his mean and condescending remarks to a U.S.-born young man of Indian descent, whom he called "macaca'' and to whom he said, "Welcome to America.'' The episode was ugly, and Allen came across like an elitist jerk. Allen didn't get any more attractive as he seemed to take offense when a reporter asked whether it was true his mother is Jewish. Allen accused the reporter of "making aspersions.''

But that doesn't mean that I can't recognize a piling on by the media when I see one, and this latest controversy fits the bill -- especially since Allen's opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, at first seemed to be getting a pass from the media over views that suggest that he's not exactly a progressive on issues of race and equal opportunity.

In the latest flap, Allen stands accused by some former University of Virginia football teammates of using the N-word to refer to African-Americans in the 1970s and '80s. One of them, radiologist Ken Shelton, also alleges that Allen once stuffed the severed head of a deer into the mailbox of a black family.

Allen denies the allegations, calling them "completely false.'' He insists that he doesn't remember ever "using that word.''

The ease with which the media latched on this story brings to mind what happened to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Having already embarrassed himself by calling New Orleans the "chocolate city'' or wondering how he could keep his city "from being overrun by Mexican workers,'' Nagin got pilloried by the media, as the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was approaching, when he referred to the site of the World Trade Center as a "hole in the ground.''

I'm no fan of Nagin, but I thought he got a bum rap. At that point, he'd become an easy mark for his critics in the media, who came to expect that he'd say outrageous things that provided juicy sound bites. So whenever he even came close to doing so, they pounced.

Now the media are pouncing on Allen because his responses to the racism charges play into this existing narrative about the Virginia senator being behind the times on racial issues.

The media just as easily could have pounced on Webb and attached to him the same narrative, but largely refrained until he got himself caught up in the N-word controversy. Even more troubling, consider his boneheaded comments about affirmative action being "state-sponsored racism.'' As he explained to Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press,'' Webb considers affirmative action defensible as long as it's limited to African-Americans and treated as a remedy for past discrimination, and not as a means to achieve other kinds of diversity.

"When this program expanded to the present day diversity programs, where essentially every ethnic group other than Caucasians are included, then that becomes state-sponsored racism,'' Webb said.

Huh? So as long as African-Americans are the only group benefiting from affirmative action, it's OK. But when you toss in other groups such as women or Hispanics, it is "state-sponsored racism''?

Webb told Russert that the way he reads U.S. history, "African-Americans are the only ethnic group in this country that have suffered from deliberate discrimination.''

Double huh? This will come as news to older Mexican-Americans who experienced segregated schools, segregated swimming pools, and restricted hotels and restaurants and other sorts of discrimination in the years before and after World War II.

What Webb said two weeks ago about affirmative action and the history of racial discrimination are at least as problematic as what Allen allegedly said 20 or 30 years ago. If elected to the Senate, Webb may have to cast votes on bills that deal with expanding opportunities to women and minorities. We have the right to wonder how his limited view of such matters could affect those votes.

It's something for Virginians of all colors to consider as they get ready to cast ballots in what is turning out to be a closely watched, and terribly illuminating, race for the U.S. Senate.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

(c) 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune


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