With the Aug. 28 anniversary of the finest American speech of the 20th century coming up, maybe it's time for an annual check-up: Are we any closer to a society in which individuals "will not be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"? The speaker, of course, was Martin Luther King Jr., and his 1963 gem before the Lincoln Memorial was the highlight of the civil-rights movement.
I have a personal reason to ask this question. Dr. King looked yearningly to the time when "on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." But at my home in the hill country of Texas, a descendant of slaves and the descendants of slave owners literally sit down at a table of brotherhood. My three oldest sons are white and my youngest is black, adopted almost 11 years ago when he was three weeks old.
They get along fine, with the usual brotherly teasing, but how will my grandchildren and great-grandchildren get along? That depends, in part, on the decisions we make now and the attitudes we display. For instance: Ben has always been popular with the little girls in his largely white classes, because he has a great smile and a quick wit. The parents of those little girls have always smiled, but will they still be smiling in high school or thereafter? White readers of this magazine should ask themselves: If my son Ben came courting your daughter, what would you say? More fundamentally, what would you think?
If the notion disquiets you, please read your Bibles and give me the passages in which the Bible even discusses skin color, let alone disparages in any way those whose skin is dark. You won't find any dissing and you'll find hardly any mention. Jeremiah asks in his 13th chapter, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?" But if someone wants to interpret that as a racial slight, keep in mind chapter 8 of Acts, where an Ethiopian through God's grace does change his theology-and it's belief rather than external characteristics that our almost entirely colorblind Bible teaches.
Making progress toward Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream does not mean ignoring differences in skin color; my son Ben certainly notices. It does mean considering them not critical. Susan and I have brought Ben up to identify himself first as a Christian, second as an American, and only third as black. I doubt if Ben, as a member of a racial minority in this country, will ever be colorblind. But I do hope he will not feel drawn to "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand" T-shirts that assume skin color controls consciousness.
Thinking of Ben and his children-to-come strengthens my dislike for racial quotas in hiring, even when they go by some other name that smells much better. Sure, it would be nice to have more people whose skin looks like Ben's in responsible positions of all kinds. But Ben needs to work absolutely as hard as he can, and anything that makes him think there is an easier road will harm him. Besides, my children have Jewish, English, Scottish, and African ancestors. Should the English genes pay reparations to the discriminated-against Jewish genes? How do we figure out the benefits that newly immigrated sweatshop workers in 1910 derived from oppressing blacks?
The first word of many children is "da-da," but the first sentence is, "It's not fair." I do not want my family divided against itself by government-mandated racial preferences regarding jobs and scholarships. Nor do I want my country to be a house divided.
The good news, as Ben develops intellectually and morally, is the existence of a better way for racial advancement than official preferences. T.S. Eliot once said, "Do we want a wool sweater? We need to plant the grass to feed the sheep to get the wool to make a sweater." Liberals these days emphasize government-imposed turf so that lives can be changed million by million from the top down. But the biblical way is better: one by one from the inside out. If we plant the right sort of grass now for children like Ben-good churches, good schools, two-parent families-and water it with lots of prayer, progress will come.
Ben this month, entering the fifth grade, has had his first football practices in 100-degree Texas weather. That's equal opportunity sweating, and that's what we should hold out for: red and yellow, black and white, all tired in the coach's sight, but persevering.