11/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Racism, John McCain and Other Republicans

Four in the morning, the town still slumbering. Mockingbirds warble at one another in the courtyard of the old San Diego police headquarters down on Market Street. I sit at a government-issue metal desk across from a uniformed police officer and ask, "Do you use racial or ethnic slurs?"

It's spring, 1976. I'm a patrol captain, interviewing, one at a time, my graveyard cops who are assigned to Southeast San Diego, a predominately black community. "Yeah, I do," answers the 12-year veteran. His tone isn't defiant or proud, embarrassed or ashamed, just kind of matter of fact. "So does everybody else."

He's got that right, almost: Thirty of my 31 Southeast officers confessed to on-the-job use of the most vile, invective, racist language you can imagine. Offenders included the area's lieutenant, two of three sergeants, and the one black cop working a beat car (a three-year man who, with tears of shame rolling down his cheeks, admitted he went along to get along).

I knew racism flourished in America, and that we cops were representative of the views and values of the citizenry at large. Moreover, I was acutely aware of my own behavior as a rookie some 10 years earlier when I had participated in racist jokes, ridiculed and baited young African American men, and made "attitude" arrests in their community. Still, I was stunned by my cops' candid replies to questions about their language and other behavior (which included excessive force, false arrest, a slower, apathetic response to crime and other forms of discrimination based on race, and class).

Why the surprise? Because I thought our workplace culture had made more progress than that. Two years earlier a new chief had announced to his top staff, "These walls have heard the N-word for the last time." We spent many hours in the police academy stressing nondiscrimination, professionalism, common courtesy.

When the "Southeast Investigation" went public a year later its findings surprised exactly no one in the black community. But it shocked the hell out of the (largely) Republican establishment in San Diego. Many corporate and civic leaders spoke up, expressing disgust, asserting their intolerance of intolerance -- particularly among those charged with upholding the constitution.

This development only added impetus to our internal campaign to once and for all end racial (and other forms of unlawful) discrimination within the ranks.

Resolutely rejecting charges of "political correctness," we set about making it clear to our cops, at all levels: You want to keep your job, you'd best put an airtight lid on the kind of language we'd heard during the Southeast Investigation, and bring to a screeching halt those discriminatory habits.

We had no illusions. We knew we weren't changing attitudes, much less deeply held beliefs. Not at first, anyway. Our theory was simple. Grab 'em by the shorthairs, and trust that their minds and hearts would follow.

Over time, more and more of our supervisors -- and peers at the officer level -- enforced that standard, even when their own bosses were not looking over their shoulders. And the chief, true to his word, fired cops who couldn't or wouldn't refrain from racially biased conduct.

Which brings us to the current dismal state of civic discourse, and the barefaced bigotry of racist-sign-toting, epithet-spewing teabaggers, birthers, and assorted other raging town-hallers.

We've all seen the Obama-as-Hitler posters, the photos of the President of the United States dressed as jungle medicine man. We've watched as nasty hecklers, including members of Congress, demean both the highest office in the land and the man who holds it. (I'd love to give Joe Wilson the benefit of the doubt, but my own beliefs and experience cause me to side with Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter. I can't shake the belief that Wilson would have seethed quietly, perhaps muttering under his breath, if a white president had delivered that line on the intersection of health care and immigration.)

And so what if people of my leftist political persuasion stooped to similar behavior in condemning George W. Bush? Two know the rest.

We've witnessed radio and TV "personalities" impugn not merely the president's policies and priorities (which they've enthusiastically, and by all rights, done) but his citizenship, his religion, and yes, his race.

Where are the sensible, decent Republicans whose parents taught them to play nice, who helped their Alex P. Keatonesque offspring grow into mature, responsible adults? No one's asking Republicans to inveigh against principles they hold dear, like free markets, corporate gluttony, or private health care. But when it comes to civilized behavior would it kill them to take a page from John McCain's playbook and speak out -- in the here and now -- against dangerously inflammatory rhetoric?

True, McCain unwittingly disparaged folks of Arab descent when he responded to his red-shirted supporter in that celebrated October '08 exchange on the campaign trail. But he showed some real class when he immediately seized the microphone from the frightened, confused woman, and characterized his presidential opponent as a "...decent family man/citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with."

Unless and until other prominent Republicans speak out with equal speed and weight against the growing forces of ignorance and intolerance, the GOP will come to be seen not only as a haven for "everybody does it" bigots but as the party of bigotry.

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