What is “racism?” The answer to that question was clear and unambiguous forty years ago. The legendary Southern sheriff Bull Conner was a “racist” because he referred to black people in deeply insulting and derogatory terms and turned his dogs on them. Others in the Deep South and elsewhere who thought black people were inferior human beings could rightly be called racists for harboring such a view. Since the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, however, the term racism has become less clear in its usage.

Jesse Jackson once commented that anyone who did not want to use race in college admissions, public employment, and public contracting was racist. This position is the opposite of the view held prior to the 1960s that anyone who wanted to use race in the public domain was guilty of racism.

The dialogue about “race” has become fraught with glaring inconsistencies. And, it is not simply a matter of being a racist depending on whether one applies race to the transactions of life. A view often heard is that the garden variety racism of hating based on the “race” of another has been replaced by “institutional racism.” The latter is a phenomenon based on statistical results and outcomes.

It is said that so many black males are in prison because of institutional racism; that “minorities” are “underrepresented” in college enrollment because of institutional racism; that President Bush was slow to respond to “Katrina” because of institutional racism, and that standardized tests are a form of institutional racism. Any result involving race that cannot be explained by other forms of measurement are characterized by some as racism of an institutional nature.

The logic escapes me that anyone can view as racist a test in which the questions are race-neutral, but not consider decisions made to benefit one group over another on the basis of race as not being racist. To elaborate further, consider the following question: If it takes three hours to drive 180 miles, the correct speed is a) 50 miles per hour; b) 60 miles per hour; or c) 90 miles per hour? If more green people than pink ones answer that question correctly, how is it accurate to say that such a question is a form of racism against pink people?

On the other hand, if a policy is established which expressly provides that pink people will receive 100 points when they apply for college admission, but greenies will only receive 50 points, how can one say that such a policy is not racist? Such inconsistencies are the stuff that drives rational individuals crazy. But, then again, those who support race preferences are frequently irrational.

Of greater concern to me than the blatant inconsistencies to be found in debates about “race” is the intolerance among those on both sides of the debate, and particularly among those who support the use of race in American life. They are quick to brand anyone who disagrees with their methods or attitudes as “racist” and to demonize those with whom they disagree.

“Race” truly is the raw nerve of America. It always has been and very likely will remain so for as long as we can project. This is not healthy for a civil society that prides itself on democratic values such as freedom of speech and principles such as equality and justice for all. I do not regard proponents of race preferences as “bad…bad…bad” people. In fact, I have found agreement with them on issues other than the use of race in public life. I wish that many of them held the same view about those who embrace my perspective.

Difficult problems such as race compel all Americans to approach that issue with respect for the right to disagree, a willingness to engage, and a tolerance for differing perspectives. This means that none should take offense when someone with whom we disagree identifies inconsistencies in the arguments that we use to promote our respective points of view.

I am convinced it is inconsistent to view the use of standardized tests that are race-neutral as “racist,” but not to view the use of race preferences, which are direct and explicit, as anything other than racist.

But, hey, can’t we all get along?

(The above column was written by Mr. Connerly at Montecito Journal’s request, after we received a heated objection to a recent bottom page quote that read: “You are inconsistent if you believe standardized tests are racist but racial quotas and set-asides are not.”)