It was too bad that Dr. Dean backed away from his stated desire to become the candidate of the bubbas sporting rebel flags in their pickup trucks. It would have been better if he had stood his ground and insisted that he equally desired to become the candidate of the brothers sporting their whatever in their SUVs. Bringing the bubbas and brothers together under the same political tent could turn out to be the first step toward a very serious dialogue about race in our time.

A “very serious dialogue about race” has to go beyond discussion of the impact of the sight of the rebel flag on the feelings of slave descendants – it has to go all the way back to slavery itself and the lingering effects thereof on those descendants even in our time. It has to investigate all the alternatives to resolving these lingering effects, ultimately including the old bugaboo: reparations.

Reparations is the oldest and least discussed unfinished business in the nation’s history – so old and so little discussed in fact that for many Americans the failure to settle the dispute after so many years has become their main reason for opposing any discussion or attempts to settle it now.

It’s like if you rape and rob a whole race for 245 years, and get away with it for 138 years, then that makes you innocent – never mind that the victims are still bleeding from the bludgeoning. Almost all whites and most Blacks refuse to talk about reparations for the same reasons they refuse to talk about rape – one trying to deny and repress the guilt and the other trying to hide and deny the shame.

It is this “see no evil speak no evil” frame of mind coupled with this double denial of guilt and shame that has turned this malady into a dangerous aneurysm deeply buried in the brain of the nation. Just as afflicted individuals foolishly ignore systematic headaches and risk of strokes and death, so it is with the national body politic. This aneurysm grew out of the “peculiar institution” and has been lodged in the country’s psyche for 138 years – bubbling up only a few times in widespread public view – as in 40 acres and a mule.

Surgeons cure a physical aneurysm by opening up the skull and dealing directly with it and this of course scares the heebie-jeebies out of the patient, but the fear and anxiety usually dissipates when the patient understands the great danger of doing nothing and just letting the condition linger. This is also true for the nation patient, which is currently refusing to recognize its condition – hiding behind such nonsense as “it’s too divisive,” “there’s a statute of limitations – case closed” and “your daddy’s dead anyway” – rather than opening up the national skull and honestly dialoging about what we see.

Dialogue and argument out in the open between Black and white Americans is the only sure correction for what is lodged in our collective skull. This we must do before we can understand what this aneurysm is about and why we must prepare to take the surgical treatment of open, out-front interracial communication. And we are not just talking about making people feel better. We are talking about defusing a time bomb in the national brain.

Those who seek the highest office in the land need to demonstrate their capacity to lead by instigating a real serious dialogue about race in our time. No, no, no! – this does not require that they “line up” either for or against reparations – only that they recognize that this is an issue that affects the lives of a significant number of their supporters and is therefore deserving of serious consideration. They can lend their support for this “consideration” by now declaring their support for House Resolution 40, which Congressman John Conyers has introduced at the beginning of each session of the House since 1989. The bill proposes the establishment of a Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans.

All of us are now called to evaluate the leadership potential of those aspiring to lead the nation. All of us, but particularly African Americans, are responsible for seeing that these would-be-presidents face up to the issue of reparations. Holding their feet to this political fire is the special mission of African American voters – after 138 years of avoidance and trivialization it is time they made reparations stance the litmus test for determining who gets their support. Congressman Conyers says: “America must come to terms with the implications of its history. Fairness and justice for the descendants of slavery, including the question of reparations, need to be dealt with once and for all.”

Dr. Eugene Walton, former coordinator of affirmative action at the Library of Congress, is author of the recently published “From Gratz v. Bollinger to Reparations” (Aventine Press 2003). He can be reached at pww@pww.org.