THE BLOG
08/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Deluded We Stand On Race And Gender

Among our weak points as Americans is a tendency to believe major issues are "done and dusted" long before we have even scratched the surface of their resolution. The French, for example, recognize more than we "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" (the more things change, the more they remain the same). This election season has revealed that despite such signs of progress as the early twentieth century successful push for the female vote and many years later the Women's Rights Movement, despite the American Civil War during which 600,000 soldiers died, the Civil Rights Movement and The Civil Rights Act of 1964, problems of gender and race bias have not been sufficiently addressed or resolved.

Sure, progress has been made. But why don't we have even 30% women and minorities in the House and Senate? Why wouldn't we insist upon it? Why would we continue to be satisfied with a small number of women wearing bright suits in order to be evident at the helm of our government? And why would we accept the dearth of minority representation in those esteemed halls? Are we so easily satisfied? So confident we've done what's needed and all subsequent lack of progress is the fault of women and minorities?

It might help to look at whether we've ever as a country been truly serious about equal rights and equal appreciation. I happen to be reading Betty Friedan's memoir, Life So Far. Betty and I taught together, became friends and worked together for several years. But I did not recall until recently reading her reflections on the past how Title VII got into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Believe it or not, it started as a joke.

Congressman Howard Smith, and avid segregationist from Virginia, had tried a last-minute tactic to kill the (Civil Rights) bill by proposing the additions of sex discrimination - as a joke. The House almost had to be recessed in the hysterical laughter that followed. But (Martha) Griffiths and a few other women in Congress swore to make those men stop laughing: they demanded a roll call vote in the House. In the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the only woman senator, demanded the same of Everett Dirksen, the minority leader. Though nobody took the women's vote seriously yet, some sound instinct told those male congressional leaders that they better not be counted in a roll call vote against the ladies, so the "joke" stayed in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The primary reason why hateful attacks on Hillary Clinton from her pantsuits to her cleavage even resonated is because as a nation we are far more immature than we realize, incapable it seems of realizing what a cultural change requires. The only reason why Michelle Obama's opinions must be stifled and Barack Obama must be berated for expressing the obvious - he is different than the presidents past who appear on one and five dollar bills - is that we are far from done with the women's or civil rights movement in this country. Attacks on John McCain's age are no less abhorrent as they reveal our love affair with youth and immature disdain for the benefits of acquired wisdom.

Bias festers beneath a surface sporadic civility in America that we have all seen break down under pressure of the current election cycle.

What do we do? We could start by being more honest with ourselves. No one exists without bias - not even intellectuals who often think they're exempt. Being bright or highly educated doesn't render anyone free of bias though some forms of education certainly open minds and quell dogmatism. Fortunately, many people struggle to overcome their own destructive biases. But even for such people, assumptions about others guide daily life. Most are not harmful even if they are distorted. But to act as if we have somehow conquered those that are, the ones that threaten our unity and value as a culture, is to deceive ourselves.

If Betty were next to me right now, she might well be pacing the room, frowning, loudly demanding that I cease to imply that the paradigm shift of gender equality was never completed - that the revolution for gender and race equality are stalled and the side in favor is still threatened. Perhaps, as was her way, she might settle down and begin to explore whether indeed all she worked for was being undermined mostly because we became complacent too soon.

People cannot function without assumptions. And prejudice will never be eradicated. In place of petty discussions about gender and race cards, we need constructive public debate and discussion about why prejudices still infiltrate our culture all the way up to the government.

We need a goalpost for our culture in terms of appreciation of differences. We need a higher standard of excellence and both the will and a way forward to reach it.

We can't rely for help on segments of the mass media that revel in their "all star" and "crack" analysts who supposedly alter history with the slick turn of a phrase. This is a larger task requiring far less hubris, serious introspection, soul-searching, and far more commitment to balance and truth (to the extent we can know it).

We need long overdue debates between two courageous presidential candidates and on the floors of the House and Senate. In any case, we need to dig deep to unearth self-deception that denies the prevalence of prejudice and to grapple with its ugliness in public until the facetious beast is truly spent.

Dr. Reardon also blogs at bardscove