Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Issue of Race Creeps Into Campaign"

That's not my headline, blurb or whatever you call the short phrases above a blog post. That's the headline from a front-page Washington Post story in Sunday's paper calling attention to the latest "injection" of race into the McCain-Obama presidential campaign -- Representative John Lewis's (D-Ga.) criticism of the 1936 Munich beer hall-style rallies, usually led by McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, that have turned into angry venting sessions of racial resentment. After a good 10 days of hearing Palin rail against Obama in the familiar language of racially coded invective to her supporters shouting, "Kill him," "terrorist," "traitor," and more, Lewis issued the following statement:

As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
Lewis has taken a hit for this from the McCain campaign and, by extension, a bewildered corporate media, which had grown quite comfortable with Barack Obama as a "post-racial" candidate. The pattern is familiar. From the first presidential election in 1788, as in, yes George Washington, race has always been an issue. Prior to the Civil War, every presidential election involved the question of slavery, and which presidential candidate was more or less likely to alter or maintain the status quo. The elections of 1852 and 1856 involved the most explicit discussion of race, slavery and territorial disputes, with Buchanan's wink-and-nod to the pro-slavery forces in the Democratic party the most obvious manifestation of the "race issue," as it was once better known. Buchanan had become quite cozy with Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, and when Buchanan took the oath of presidential office in March 1857, he did so knowing full well where Taney was prepared to take the country on the slavery question -- that the Constitution forbade Congress from interfering with the states' power to establish and maintain slavery. Later that year, of course, Taney would write the Court's opinion in Dred Scott, a decision that constitutional scholars and historians generally agree fired the first shots of the Civil War.

Slavery dominated the presidential election of 1860, with Abraham Lincoln taking the position that the nation could not remain a "house divided," while his opponent, Stephen Douglas, favored the status quo. Lincoln did not carry a single Southern state in that election, the most prominent reason being, of course, that he expressed opposition to the "peculiar institution" and favored its gradual elimination by forbidding slavery in new territories, whereas Douglas favored a nation "forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it as the people of each state have decided." After the Civil War, race remained at the center of the presidential elections of 1868, 1872 and, most notably, 1876, where Rutherford B. Hayes inched out a corruption-fighting district attorney from New York, Samuel Tilden, by pledging to end Reconstruction in the South. Hayes's concession to the Southern racists and race-weary (and racist) Northerners opened the door to Jim Crow, the political creation of Southern politicians who cleverly established the doctrine of "separate but equal" to meet the requirements of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, which was intended to enfranchise primarily African-Americans and make the guarantees of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. The Supreme Court never contested the power of Southern states (and a minimum of a dozen others outside the old Confederacy) to establish a racial caste system that not only forcibly separated whites and blacks, permitting contact only when it was convenient and necessary for whites, never for blacks. In 1896, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, officially validated these rules establishing racial apartheid throughout the United States when it ruled that racially segregated train cars did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. No public figure or official of import -- including all presidents from Theodore Roosevelt through Dwight D. Eisenhower -- saw fit to challenge a system -- at once economic, social, cultural and political -- that was created by and for whites and enforced by law until the late 1940s. Around that time, the Supreme Court, prodded by a series of cases brought by the NAACP (and argued by attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, Spotswood Robinson, Jack Greenberg and Charles Hamilton Houston), began ruling that unless public universities and law schools provided genuinely equal facilities for blacks, white schools would have to admit them. By 1954, the NAACP had established enough favorable legal precedent to force the Supreme Court to confront once and for all the motive behind Jim Crow: that the forcible separation of the "races" was not the product of some "natural" order or mutually desirable arrangement; rather, racial apartheid was based on the long-held view that whites were superior to blacks and entitled to create rules that enforced this belief. Brown v. Board of Education did not, as many people still mistakenly believe, overturn Plessy. Brown held that any language in Plessy inconsistent with its ruling was no longer good law. The decision did not reach beyond public education.

So, naturally, race returned to more prominent position in the 1956 election, with Eisenhower choosing to remain mute on the subject rather than take a more forcible stand on racial equality beyond public education. Not until 1958, when the ugly events in Little Rock, Arkansas were literally broadcast to the entire world, including those countries behind the Iron Curtain, did Eisenhower see fit to enlist the power of the executive branch to enforce a racial integration order. And that case, Cooper v. Aaron, involved the admission of nine black students into a high school of 1200 white students.

Nine in 1200. And it took a nationalized Arkansas Guard and the 82nd Airborne Division to enforce the Court's decision.

Moving ahead . . . 1960. Let's see, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon danced gingerly around the issues that were now becoming more and more a staple of domestic American politics. They competed to see who could first reassure Coretta Scott King that her husband would not remain confined in an Atlanta jail for challenging the city's racial segregation laws in public accommodations, with Kennedy emerging as the winner. The short-term impact of Kennedy's intervention in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s incarceration was minimal, but the long-term consequences were soon evident. After 1960, African-Americans moved en masse to the Democratic party, a shift of historic importance, as it marked the modern transformation of the Democratic and Republican parties into the institutions they are today. The party of Lincoln was morphing into the party of Barry Goldwater, a Republican congressman from Arizona, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and almost every piece of federal legislation intended to remove racial inequities from the law. By 1968, the Republican party had inherited the racist faction of the Democratic party, which had begun losing Southern Democrats as far back as 1948, when Strom Thurmond, disgruntled with President Harry Truman's decision to integrate the armed forces and extend at-home veteran's benefits to African-Americans returning home from World War II, established the Dixiecrat party.

Cue Richard Nixon, who, reemerging from a self-imposed political exile after he lost the 1962 election for the California governorship, explicitly embraced the "Southern strategy" to puncture the Democrats once-firm hold on the South. By the mid-1960s, the Solid Democratic South built on the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt had started to crumble, primarily because of Lyndon Johnson's decision to embrace the civil rights movement while simultaneously advocating the "Great Society," an ambitious expansion of the New Deal welfare state that would include much more in the way of social services, health care and funding for education. That meant more taxes, and more taxes, to Southerners, meant white tax dollars going to support federal welfare programs that were intended for blacks. Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that the modern Republican party was constructed upon the triumvirate of race, taxes and the welfare state. More so than any other domestic issues -- and, yes, that includes abortion, gay rights, prayer in school . . . pick one from the "family values" palette -- divergence on these three policy issues, all linked, explains the composition of the modern Democratic and Republican parties.

And that's not even getting into George Wallace's two turns on the presidential campaign stage in 1968 and 1972.

Ronald Reagan was agnostic on the question of race. He never struck me as a racist in any classic sense, just as someone completely indifferent to the history of race in the United States and the consequences of a legally-enforced system of racial apartheid. Critics often pointed to his opposition to the social welfare state, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his administration's opposition to the 1982 extensions of the 1965 law, its support for a tax exemption for Bob Jones University, a private religious school that discriminated against blacks, over the objections of the Internal Revenue Service, opposition to affirmative action and federal programs in place to provide assistance to the needy, some of which went back to the New Deal, not just the 1960s. Now that I think about it, tagging Reagan as a racist was and is unfair. A more accurate description of Reagan and race is to see him as the perfect modern example of racial privilege. A man of modest talents and even more modest intellect, he was able to work his way up through the businesses of entertainment and politics in no small part because of his race. In Hollywood, he did not have to compete with black actors; nor, as a pitchman for corporate America in the 1950s and early 1960s, did he have to compete with blacks for such a cushy and lucrative position. Reagan's turn as a governor in the 60s was simply a coming attraction for the Schwarzenegger-phenom of the celebrity as politician. At no point, I am fairly certain, did it ever occur to Ronald Reagan that race had anything to do with his success. Like many white Americans today, Reagan lived his life firmly convinced that his "success" in America was the result of merit and in no way, shape or form linked to the system that openly and with legal and political force advantaged whites.

And then there was Reagan's decision, urged by former Mississippi senator Trent Lott, to launch his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the small town where the Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964 for their efforts to register black voters. This incredibly insensitive decision was greeted less with "What could you be thinking?" than a "Let's not read too much into this . . ." response from a national press core that was starting to bend under the charm of candidate Reagan. Lott's goal was clear -- to establish Reagan as the candidate of lower-income white America, and reassure those whites that he would not use the federal government to underwrite and encourage bad behavior among black Americans. This would be a president who would put white America first.

Let's see . . . 1988 Willie Horton . . . 1992 Bill Clinton's call to "end welfare as we know it" . . . the emergence in 2008 of the "white working class" from small-town America as the purveyors of all that is good and wholesome about America, with Hillary Clinton becoming the first Democratic nominee since 1964 to openly court the white vote at the expense of the African-American vote . . . . and on and on it goes.

So, now, we hear John McCain, Sarah Palin and their echo chamber on the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard, Fox and the other conservative purveyors of "opinion" discuss the unfairness of having criticize John Lewis, who is always among their first "some of my best friends are black" public figures because of his low-key persona and beyond reproach standing as a genuine American hero.  Just like no one should doubt John McCain's courage for enduring what he did in Vietnam, no one should ever doubt Lewis's commitment to a more humane and fair society.  He literally risked his life time and time again in the early 1960s on behalf of a more democratic and inclusive society.  And Lewis was never about "tolerance," a term so condescending that I cringe every time I hear it.  Lewis was about reconciliation and trying to get Americans, regardless of who they were or where they were born, to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in the democratic ideal. When John Lewis says something stinks, it stinks. 

And yet . . . there is no call for "white leaders" to "repudiate" Sarah Palin or John McCain for their association (in the former's case, encouragement of) with the yahoos at their rallies. There is no call by Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Rush Limbaugh or anyone else for McCain or Palin to give a national speech explaining the obligations of white Americans to behave more responsibly in public or to "tolerate" those not like them.  Yes, yes, yes . . . we'll hear more and more about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers in the weeks to come; we will hear nothing about John Hagee, Charles Keating, James Dobson or any other right-wing nut from generations past and present, and how their "relationship" to John McCain raises doubts about his character.  No, no, no . . . white Americans have no obligation to be responsible for anything that any other white American might say or do.  But when a black man or woman says or does something that offends the sensibilities of some white Americans, the reaction is some sort of Twilight Zone version of the children's game, Freeze Tag: stop what you're doing immediately and denounce, reject, disassociate or disown the offending party.  

Or just kill him. Or her. Whatever works.

So let's take this opportunity to remind ourselves that now, in this late stage of the 2008 election, the "issue of race [has] crept into [the presidential] campaign."

Who knew?

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