And in 1971, Muhammad Ali went on a British talk show and argued against interracial marriage because "You're a hater of your people if you don't want to stay who you are. You're ashamed of what God made you. God didn't make no mistake when he made us all like we were."
And in 1972, we saw Archie Bunker's face register alarm when Sammy Davis, Jr. confused his son-in-law with a black man, and disgust when Davis kissed him.
I'm not the first person who looks back at those days and marvels: Not at the racism being shown, because in many machine shops and furnished suburban basements, racism is every bit as strong as it ever was. No, I marvel at the appetite of the media organizations, back then, to put these topics up for freewheeling discussion.
Early in the 1990s, everyone started bellyaching about "political correctness," a bogeyman that everyone attacked as if it was a problem in itself. But it was only a symptom of the problem.
And the problem was—as the problem still is—we are embarrassed. By "we," I mean the more and less powerful people who see ourselves as part of a polite and constructive "national dialogue," on every subject from pink slime to white-on-black crime.
And why are we embarrassed? During the '60s and '70s, we could talk about race in a confrontational way—remember Richard Pryor?—because civil rights had just been passed and we thought race relations were on the come. But then suddenly it became 20 years later and Eddie Murphy could get laughs by dressing up as a white guy and discovering a whole different world, even on a city bus.
Racial progress, for all the government's policies and all of Phil Donohue's fancy dialogue, had seriously bogged down. So instead of dealing with that, we put the Cosby family on TV, and stopped talking about race except when we were absolutely forced to, by Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, the Million Man March and the O.J. Simpson trial. And now 20 years after all that—we're still dealing with utterly segregated neighborhoods and schools, ironclad links between race and poverty and bitter idealogical stalemates like this sad case of Trayvon Martin.
I do occasionally leave my professional commuinicator's cocoon and drink beer with people black and white who don't think of themselves as part of the "national dialogue on race," but rather as people who are being talked about while they're standing in the room.
And you know what I hear? I hear Muhammad Ali and Archie Bunker, trying to call it like they see it—and only more determined to do so for all the prissiness and dishonesty and, perhaps most irritating, pious humorlessness with which such issues are discussed publicly. By you and me: the public relations representatives of a red-faced nation.
When the British TV host, Michael Parkinson, told Ali that he wouldn't mind if his grandchildren were "kinky-head black people" (as Ali had put it), Ali got a huge laugh from the crowd when he said, "You're on the show, you've gotta say that."
Writing Boots readers, we're all on the show. And we all—writers, reporters speechwriters, communication excecutives—feel a responsibility to contribute to the a productive conversation. But you've been watching the Trayvon Martin Hoodie Affair.
How are we doing?