Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman now faces murder charges in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, in a tragedy that has sparked a new debate on race. It has renewed, in particular, charges of racism on the right, where many pundits have taken the shooter's side. But each side of the political spectrum needs to reexamine its dogmas.
The problem on the right is highlighted by the embarrassment at National Review, a leading conservative magazine, which has just dropped two writers for making racist statements in other venues. Longtime regular John Derbyshire had penned an article advising white parents to warn their children that blacks are likely to be stupid and violent; occasional web contributor Robert Weissberg had spoken at a white supremacist conference. Yet critics note that Derbyshire in particular had always been fairly open about his racist views, though in less extreme form.
For many on the left, the National Review controversy validates the stereotype of Republicans as bigots. On the New Republic website, Timothy Noah argues that many aspects of conservative ideology, while not inherently racist, "attract allies with toxic views on race." His list includes a small-government philosophy that limits anti-discrimination measures, opposition to racial preferences and welfare programs that disproportionately benefit blacks, and support for policies that incarcerate too many black males.
Yet all these arguments could be turned around. Many African-American authors -- not all of them conservative -- criticize minority preferences in college admissions as a subtle stigma of inferiority. Government regulations can hamper minority entrepreneurs. Welfare programs may harm intended beneficiaries by promoting dependency and family breakdown. Lax criminal justice policies do no favor to blacks, who are disproportionate victims of violent crime.
What's more, liberals and Democrats have their own toxic allies. Take the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has repeatedly stoked racial animosity. Take the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who has not only delivered anti-white rants to his congregation but argued in an address at an NAACP event that African-American children should not have to emulate "logical and analytical" white learning styles -- racist tripe espoused nowadays by some "progressive" educators.
Left-wing blind spots on race include knee-jerk support for allegations of white-on-black wrongdoing, taboos around topics such as academic underachievement and violence in the black community, and reluctance to criticize hypersensitive charges of racism. Ironically, such "political correctness" often enables real racism. If one can be called a racist for believing that blacks can succeed without government handouts, bona fide racists can easily hide behind claims of politically correct persecution.
Often, too, liberals are guilty of their own brand of race-baiting toward blacks who don't toe the party line. Whatever one thinks of former presidential contender Herman Cain, attempts to paint him as an Uncle Tom -- by, among others, MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, who lambasted Cain for failing to participate in the civil rights struggle as a teenager -- were appalling.
None of this means that conservatives are off the hook. National Review tolerated Derbyshire's race-baiting for too long. Some conservative groups have circled the wagons around activists guilty of racially offensive rhetoric (consider imagery of President Barack Obama as a tribal witch doctor). The right has also been far too tolerant of pro-Confederacy Southern nostalgia. Playing "gotcha" by pointing to problematic racial attitudes on the left is no excuse for any of that.
But what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Liberals can do better than point to evidence of right-wing racism while patting themselves on the back for their own enlightened beliefs. They have their own hypocrisies to reconsider.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.