12/09/2011 03:17 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2012

Waiting in the Gray Areas

Extremist rhetoric is a hallmark of presidential campaigns, so by that measure the recent GOP debates -- studded with calls for ethnic and religious profiling or the euphemized "targeted identification" -- have not disappointed.

It's little wonder that the GOP candidates are trying to make immigration, ethnic and minority issues into hot-button campaign topics. Fear-mongering across all political parties has proven to be very effective in steering voters' thoughts away from the really tough questions (jobs, the economy) for which many politicians have few good answers.

Asked at a recent CNN debate how he would enhance airport security, candidate Rick Santorum said that he would endorse profiling. "Obviously, Muslims would be someone you'd look at," he said. "The radical Muslims are the people that are committing these crimes, by and large, as well as younger males." Herman Cain went even further, calling for the institutionalization of profiling. And even though Cain is gone, remarks like that tend to live on.

The problem is that this kind of hardline rhetoric hurts our country. It drives people into opposing corners, eliminating a chance to find middle ground and leaving millions of Americans mired in poverty and unemployment.

When political leaders demonstrate that it's OK to tarnish an entire ethnic or religious group, xenophobic rhetoric enters the mainstream public discourse in a way that encourages intolerant and extreme reactions.

The FBI's most recent hate crimes statistics show incidents targeting Muslims increased by 50 percent in 2010. Who can forget the attack against a New York City cab driver whose throat was slashed after being asked if he was a Muslim? That one made the headlines, but countless other crimes fail to attract media attention and many more go unreported when people, themselves profiled by government agencies, are afraid to call the police.

Of course, Muslims are not alone in facing bigotry and intimidation. Another bogeyman of the current campaign is the question of undocumented immigrants. Newt Gingrich caused a firestorm last month when he took a relatively humane stance on the complex issue of immigration, saying, "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century."

His opponents dialed up the usual rhetoric. Mitt Romney cried amnesty and labeled Gingrich a "Washington insider." Michelle Bachmann used the "L" word, saying Gingrich probably held the most liberal position on illegal immigration. Rick Perry also came under fire for supporting in-state college tuition for the children of long-term undocumented residents in Texas.

Meanwhile, immigrant families are being torn apart by outdated policies that haven't changed since 1990. At the same time, some 49 million Americans struggling with hunger are wondering who's looking out for them; the disabled, the elderly and the poor are left to wonder too. And our nation's youth demonstrate little faith in our national institutions, and who can blame them when all they see are impasse and failure to compromise?

It's going to take honest and painstaking dialogue and compromise to address our nation's big problems. Extremist rhetoric only clogs the political pipeline, delaying crucial legislation and leading to prolonged suffering for the least privileged among us. As our leaders are polarized into ideological shouting matches, their rhetoric deafens them -- and us -- to potential solutions.

As we head into 2012, America can ill afford such extremes. While politicians indulge in the rhetoric of black and white, the rest of us must live -- and wait -- in the gray areas.