With the New Year only days old, I would like to take a moment to congratulate the state of Virginia and the American public for a couple of notable accomplishments. Not one to lavish praise unstintingly, I nevertheless feel credit should always be given when it is deserved.
In 1985, America went beyond race to appreciate "The Cosby Show" and make it the number one television show in the nation.
And proving the lie to Virginia's Democratic leadership, that state's voters went beyond race to elect state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder to the office of lieutenant governor, making him the first black elected to statewide office in Virginia.
Many factors contributed to these accomplishments, one of the most important being television, both in its role as a medium of entertainment and as conveyer of political messages. As damaging as television can be and as tired as its characters and story lines sometimes are, TV can be a reflection of new spirit and movement.
Just a few years ago, we were hard put to find television presentations of blacks that escaped the narrow old stereotypes. Black women, for example, were traditionally portrayed as smart-talking maids.
During the last few seasons, however, we have a new black woman. One came as Bill Cosby's wife, Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who was also an attorney -- although we'd like to see more of her in her professional role. On "Dynasty," Diahann Carroll dripped with jewels and furs, instead of a house full of children. On "Miami Vice," Olivia Brown plays a cop, while Madge Sinclair works as the head nurse on "Trapper John, M.D."
Sniffing the winds of change, Wilder decided to take his case straight to the public via TV with paid advertising. But first he had to overlook naysayers among his own supporters and strategists that television ads would be tantamount to expensive suicide just as he had to disregard warnings from his fellow Democrats that he could never win statewide office.
Yet that incredible ad in which he was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, featuring a white law official, was credited with helping him win the election.
In the past, while 70 percent to 80 percent of blacks would vote for whites, whites tended to vote for blacks at rates of only 7 percent to 8 percent. By contrast, Wilder won 44 percent of the white vote.
"Doug won because of changing attitudes of white voters," Paul Goldman, Wilder's campaign manager, said in an interview last week. "I'm convinced of that. The public is so easily underestimated."
Indeed, all these events are evidence that old barriers that once reigned in America are changing, in part hastened by the powerful impact of electronic media. Television has made images of blacks, other minorities and women more accepted, even in some cases embraced.
The apparent willingness of millions of ordinary Americans to break down the old barriers may tell us that America is slowly winning the war against prejudice that once said a black or woman faced barriers that could not be hurdled.
You might say we've gone from a fictional Benson, who went from butler to lieutenant governor, to the real thing with Doug Wilder, who went from hotel waiter to lieutenant governor.
As viewers become less prejudiced about gender, color and circumstances of birth, they are able to focus instead on the ideas and value systems of nonwhites. It doesn't mean that racism has disappeared from the American scene.
Paradoxically these signs of progress are appearing at the same time that the Reagan administration is failing to enforce civil rights and equal opportunity laws and is itself no model of racial progress.
Thus, none of these TV-related signs of progress are meant to underestimate the continuing adverse impact of economic, educational and social problems. Much remains to be done, and it won't be smooth sailing.
But when we pause to note that the tough shell of prejudice that once seemed so impregnable is cracking, that hopeful sign provides a a basis for hope and growth in the future.
So on the eve of the inauguration on Saturday of Virginia's new leadership, and the start of a New Year, let's tip a glass to Virginia, Wilder -- and television.