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When the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts meet in the Super Bowl this weekend, it will mark the first time in history that the big game includes a team with an African American head coach. What makes this breakthrough even more significant is the fact that both head coaches, the Bears' Lovie Smith and the Colts' Tony Dungy, are African Americans. In an editorial in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, author Joseph Epstein argued that we're minimizing each man's personal achievements when we focus on his race:
"Doesn't doing so suggest a patronizing sense of amazement -- as if to say, who'd have thunk not one but two black men could be at the top of their line of work? Doesn't doing so also suggest a note of self-congratulations for Americans -- as if to say, look how far we've come in giving these men a chance?"
Epstein contends that great accomplishments should stand alone, apart from the achiever's race, religion, or ethnicity. Only when that happens, he maintains, will we truly be a tolerant society.

I think Epstein makes a good argument, but I believe he's overlooking a significant benefit to acknowledging these kinds of milestones. We need constant reminders that we are not yet the tolerant society Epstein describes. Pointing out that it took forty-one years for an African American coach to reach the Super Bowl is a striking reminder. What's more, it honors Smith and Dungy for pushing through the obstacles and moving us closer to the day when we won't notice the skin color of a football coach.

So when we celebrate the first African American Super Bowl coach, or the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House, or the first Swedish astronaut in space, we're not demeaning the pioneers. We're recognizing the passing landmarks along our long journey to tolerance.
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