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When conservatives look beyond race

I suppose it's easier to get engrossed in a subplot when the main story line has become fairly obvious. Maybe that's why, in this race of all-but-certain presidential nominees, I find myself distracted by Alan Keyes.

Or rather by the response of white conservative voters to Alan Keyes. I'm not suggesting that Keyes is likely to repeat in New Hampshire his startling showing in the Iowa caucuses _ a third-place finish with 14 percent of the vote _ much less that he'll still be battling George W. Bush for the Republican nomination as the party convention draws nearer.

The subplot I've been following treats a much simpler question: Are white voters truly capable of looking beyond a black candidate's race?

Black Americans seem certain that the answer is "no," while white voters _ on much the same evidence _ believe it has long since been answered in the affirmative.

Didn't we help elect David Dinkins mayor of New York City and Doug Wilder governor of Virginia? whites will say. And blacks will reply: Yes, but in substantial measure out of racial guilt _ which means that it was, at bottom, a race-tinged vote. Similarly with elected officials from Massachusetts' Ed Brooke to Oklahoma's J.C. Watts, and with that most popular of non-candidates, Colin Powell. I remember remarking, with utter seriousness, that the white-led bandwagon for Powell was a way for white people to prove to themselves they had gotten over their fixation on race.

Now Alan Keyes has me wondering if I've gotten over mine.

A televised interview with a handful of Iowans after the Keyes surprise makes my point. The reporter was talking to these white conservatives _ members of what we call the "religious right" _ and a couple of them were explaining how they compared Keyes and Gary Bauer and found Keyes' views more to their liking. One of the respondents mentioned that she'd like to see Keyes on the ticket of the eventual nominee.

What struck me about that brief exchange was that it seemed genuinely to have nothing to do with race, only issues.

And I was reminded by something in my long-repressed memory: Strom Thurmond, as Old South and conservative as they come, standing up at those 1991 Judiciary Committee hearings for Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. I don't imagine Thurmond was motivated by racial angst. Indeed, the Senate's 1,000-year-old man seemed utterly indifferent to the fact that Thomas' white wife, Virginia, was a daily fixture at those hearings.

He may have supported Thomas for reasons I would reject, but on this issue, at least, Strom Thurmond seemed, like that woman in Iowa, to have surmounted race in favor of political philosophy.

I can't help thinking it's a good thing _ and too little recognized by those of us who keep insisting we want to be judged by characteristics other than the color of our skins.

But just look how these conservatives get beyond race _ by supporting African-Americans whose views are anathema to the rank and file of black voters. Doesn't that demonstrate their disregard for what black people in general think? Doesn't it suggest that the only way they can forget our race is by supporting black folk who've forgotten it, too?

But what would we expect? That these dyed-in-the-wool political and religious conservatives _ who oppose a woman's right to choose abortion, who think affirmative action is Satan's own tool, and who never saw a new government initiative they didn't hate _ should get out the vote for Jesse Jackson Sr.?

I don't mean to suggest that all conservatives have retired their suspicions of racial minorities, or that racism and a certain brand of conservatism have been completely disentangled. I'm suggesting only that those of us who refuse to believe that white people can be conservative without being against black people _ who can't get past the once valid notion that conservatism was frequently nothing more than a polite name for racism _ may have some disentangling of our own to do.

And a modest bit of celebration. For if conservatives _ the people we have always viewed as our dedicated enemies _ are willing to move beyond our race to consider our character and our philosophy, why there may be hope for white liberals, too!

William Raspberry is a columnist at the Washington Post.

Washington Post Writers Group