“Where y’all from?” The question came from the waitress at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Manassas, Virginia, but it could have come from one at any of the chain’s facilities. It must be part of the training for Cracker Barrel waitresses to always ask that same question.

“We’re local. Just heading out.”

“Well, be careful out there. The roads will be crowded today.”

Manassas is a good place to start any road trip in Virginia. The Cracker Barrel sits, as they say, just spittin’ distance from Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of the first battle of Bull Run, the place where a ragtag group of southerners taught the Union Army a thing or two about war.

You can’t go very far in any direction in the Commonwealth of Virginia without running into a reminder of what my granddaddy always called “the war of Northern aggression.” Virginia remembers the war with reverence, a fact that my Yankee born and bred wife always notes with some amusement.

“My God,” she said the first time I brought her to my home state. “What would it be like if you had actually won the Civil War?”

That topic has been on a lot of minds lately with the trials and tribulations of Trent Lott, the Mississippi Senator who lost his job as Majority Leader because he told retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond the country would have been better off he (Thurmond) has won his 1948 presidential bid on a segregationist ticket.

Lott stepped down under fire but the debate rages on. Democrats say the whole thing just proves Republicans are a bunch of racists. Republicans say Democrats are the real racists and everybody says they are just as enlightened about race as everyone else.

Yeah, the war of Northern aggression may have ended 137 years ago, but the issues that spawned that bloody part of American history live on.

Even my Yankee wife knows the war wasn’t really about slavery but concerned the more important issue of states’ rights, a battle that continues today as the federal government exerts more and more control over matters that should be left in the hands of state and local jurisdictions.

But that fact got lost in the emotional rhetoric over the deplorable practice of slavery. Today, it gets lost in the emotional rhetoric of race.

Race is, and always has been, a hot button issue for this country. It is understandable, given our early penchant for enslaving human beings and treating them like animals. Yet even a century later, racism – and the hatred it breeds – still dominates the political landscape and drives political debate.

Neither political party can, or should, claim the high ground when it comes to race. Thomas Jefferson, generally regarding as the founding father of the principles of the Democratic Party, owned slaves and defended the practice in many debates. Years later, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, would free them. Trent Lott, a Republican Senator, praised a racist presidential campaign. Robert Byrd, a Democrat Senator, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Both parties have their share of racist honkies in the woodpile.

Whites have their David Dukes. Blacks have their Louis Farrakahns.

As soon as the issue of race enters any political debate, things turn ugly and the name calling begins. While racism is, and should be, an important issue, it is not easy to discuss that issue rationally when emotions overcome reason and hyperbole replaces logic.

More than 40 years ago, as a youngster in Farmville, Virginia, I saw the ugly face of racism first hand when a school board dominated by bigots (Democrat and Republican) closed the public schools in Prince Edward County rather than obey the law that said they should be integrated. The board then opened all all-white private school and allowed a generation of young blacks to grow up in that county without any public education.

They claimed the issue was about local rights versus the demands of the federal government.

It may have started out that way, but when they closed the schools, it became racism. Years later, the county was forced to reopen the schools but the all white private school opened during that shameful period continues to operate today.

It is a monument to racism driven by a hate that crosses all party lines, claims no ethnic home and defies all philosophical classification.