In today's society, blacks regard blackface routines--whites with faces painted black--as demeaning. For someone to invent and perform such a routine today would be unpardonable. But blackface acts were once a mainstay of the American vaudeville stage. Is it racism for talented people to go onstage to recreate this slice of the performing arts?

This is the backdrop of a case in Baltimore. The American Civil Liberties Union, which often represents unpopular causes, asked a federal judge to revoke a 1982 order that barred white Baltimore police officer Robert Berger from performing Al Jolson routines in blackface, something he once did on a moonlighting job.

Berger testified that, since the dispute over his after-hours activity, he has had his police powers revoked and has been assigned to compiling statistics. But he also testified that he has performed, defying the court order as unconstitutional.

The two sides are capsuled in the comments of ACLU lawyer Barbara Mello, who questioned whether Berger's performances should be banned merely because they're offensive to some, and Baltimore police lawyer Millard Rubinstein, who called the performances a possible trigger for a "very real possibility of violence" and a backlash against the police department itself.

U.S. District Judge Walter E. Black scheduled final arguments in the case for Oct. 6.