Category Archives: Racial Equality

White Privilege

Every so often, even well-meaning people will pooh-pooh the notion of “white privilege.” Most of us who enjoy that privilege fail to recognize how it works, both for us and for those who don’t benefit from the unspoken assumptions evoked by white skin.

What made me think about the subject was an email I received the other day from a (white) friend. She wrote

I’m currently reading “Ted Koppel Off Camera” a book of his daily journal of news and personal observations from 1999.   In it, he says he read a statistic that was so incredible he didn’t believe it – that 8 of 10 blacks had spent time behind bars.    That includes people held for short times in jail and released for lack of evidence or wrongful arrest, but nevertheless, he was incredulous.    So he asked 5 blacks with whom he worked if they had ever been arrested and spent time behind bars, and every one of them had -one repeatedly for driving a new car which police didn’t think a black man should be driving.

Her email reminded me of my own dumbfounded reaction several years ago, when I was part of a small group that later became the much-larger Race Relations Network of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. There were approximately 20 of us in that early group, about half and half white and black. Most were professionals, or highly-educated executives with local companies or organizations.

For some reason, the discussion turned to speed limits, and someone asked “How many of you have been stopped for speeding?” All of us raised our hands. The next question was more pointed. “When you were stopped, how many of you were asked ‘Can I  search your vehicle’”? Every black hand went up; no white ones did.

Tell me again how “white privilege” is a myth….

The War Between the Americans

I recently read an article that traced the roots of Tea Party zealotry all the way back to 1938 and the first signs of the eventual split between Northern and Southern Democrats. The trajectory of intensely racialized politics continued through Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the Reagan realignment, giving us today’s “rigidly homogenous and disproportionately Southern Republican Party.”

That’s a nice way of saying that today’s GOP is a party of Southern white guys, and a lot of them really resent the fact that we have a black President.

My husband and I have friends from the South who still refer to the Civil War as “the war between the States.” I used to think that phrase–and the hostility it conveyed–were remnants of a time past.

Granted, when I went to school in Chapel Hill, NC, in the sixties, there were still separate restrooms and drinking fountains. Just a couple of years ago, a docent at the Rice Museum in Georgetown, SC, told us how unfair it was that slaveowners weren’t compensated for the loss of their “property” via the Emancipation Proclamation. (And before you hit that comment button, anyone who has listened to lame “jokes” at Northern cocktail parties  knows racism isn’t limited to the South.) But America was making progress! These retrograde attitudes were on the wane. Or so I (naively) thought.

And then Barack Obama was elected, and–rather than confirming progress– the boil was lanced, the rocks lifted…pick your metaphor.

Now let me say up front that it is perfectly possible to disagree with this–or any–President about policies and priorities. It is perfectly acceptable to criticize a chief executive, and to do so loudly and vehemently. And there are plenty of Republicans whose disagreements with this President are simply that: disagreements.

But only the willfully blind can deny that there are also frightening numbers of people who are clearly and obviously motivated by racial animus.

These are the people whose “policy disagreements” with Obama emerged before he had policies, and whose “principled” disputes included birther conspiracy theories, allegations that he was/is a Muslim, a Kenyan, a socialist, a Nazi–”policy disputes” that took the form of cartoons portraying him as a monkey, pictures of the White House with watermelons on the lawn,  vile comments posted to news stories, and the behavior of Tea Party crowds like the recent rally at the White House featuring Sarah Palin, a confederate flag, and demands that the President “put down the Q’uaran.”

Joe the Plumber (remember him?), never the brightest bulb in the room, wasn’t exactly subtle last weekend when he posted an article on his blog titled: “America Needs a White Republican President.”

These aren’t policy disputes.

The vitriol has been hard to miss–unless, of course, you prefer not to see it. And there are a lot of otherwise nice people–people who would never burn a cross on someone’s lawn, or make overtly racist remarks–who clearly prefer not to see what is glaringly obvious. (A lawyer of my acquaintance recently professed surprise when someone commented on the outpouring of racism in the wake of Obama’s election, saying he hadn’t noticed anything of the sort. Evidently he doesn’t get the offensive forwarded emails, or read the comments sections of the daily paper, or listen to Rush Limbaugh or his clones.)

I don’t know what we can do about the seething hatred triggered, ironically, by the election of a black President. Historians confirm that racism, Anti-Semitism, homophobia and the like tend to spike during periods of economic uncertainty, and we can hope that as the economy improves, it will subside.

I do know one thing: Edmund Burke was right when he said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

At the very least, the good people need to speak up. Pretending not to see the ugliness and vitriol just feeds the hatred.

Who’d have thought the Civil War would last so long…..

 

Madison, Bingham and the Crapshoot of History

There was a lecture at the McKinney School of Law yesterday about Jonathan Bingham, the most important constitutional figure you’ve probably never heard of. One of the professors has just written a biography of him–”American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

I came across Bingham and the role he played in U.S. history a number of years ago, when I was researching a book of my own. He was a Republican Congressman from Ohio, a fervent believer in racial equality, who wrote the first and most famous passage of the 14th Amendment–the one forbidding states to deny “the privileges and immunities of citizenship” to their citizens, and requiring that they extend to those citizens the guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws.

It was clear even from the brief research I did then that Bingham’s intent was to finish what Madison had tried but been unable to do–apply the entire Bill of Rights to state and local governments. (Originally, the Bill of Rights only restrained the federal government.) In the aftermath of the Civil War, he was able to get it done.

Or so he thought.

The Supreme Court declined to interpret the 14th Amendment as requiring complete and immediate”incorporation,” the weird term used by lawyers that means applying the Bill of Rights’ restrictions against government at all levels. The Court opted for “selective” incorporation–and only over a period of many years, as cases came before it, used the Amendment as a vehicle to ensure that  local government units respect the “fundamental liberties” protected by the Bill of Rights.

What too few Americans appreciate is the importance of the 14th Amendment to our current Constitutional system. Yale Constitutional scholar Akil Amar has called the post-civil rights period and the changes wrought by the 14th Amendment a second founding, and it does seem odd that even Americans who are quite familiar with the roles played by Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton et al have never heard of Bingham, nor been taught about the profound effect of his Amendment.

Just goes to show, I guess. HIstory’s a crapshoot.

Fifty Years Later

I’ve been mulling over the fifty-year anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

Unlike many–actually, most–of those providing commentary around this milestone, I didn’t read about the event in class or see television reports after the fact. I was twenty-one when the March occurred–the coverage I saw was contemporaneous, and a great deal of it was far from positive.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of the population considered King an “agitator.” Even among people who genuinely wanted a more equal society, there were concerns that King’s approach was too “in your face,” and would end up making things even worse. Needless to say, there were plenty of people who were not just unconcerned with racial justice,  but who strongly believed that black people were inferior and needed to be kept “in their place,” and were outraged not just by the March on Washington, but by the entire civil rights movement.

So–fifty years later, where are we?

Are things better than they were when I was young? Absolutely. Are they where one might hope after fifty years? Not even close. Considerable racial animus persists, although its expression has (thankfully) changed.

Ironically, it was the election of an African-American President that brought long-buried racial resentments out from under the rocks that had obscured them. Perhaps progress is always like this: two steps forward, one back. Advance, then blowback. But Obama’s election unleashed a bitter undercurrent that surprised and disheartened many of us. The “birther” accusations, the racist emails, the hysterical opposition to everything the President does or says, the characterization of America’s Commander-in-Chief as a Muslim, a socialist, a Nazi….as “other.” I suppose it is a measure of progress that even the haters feel the need for euphemisms, and use these labels rather than the “n” word they so clearly mean.

I suppose it’s progress that they shrink from acknowledging even to themselves that their blind hatred is motivated by race.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of the social upheaval that we now simply call “the Sixties,” it would have been impossible to predict where social forces were taking the country. Despite the wrenching changes and excesses–and the enormous and often disproportionate reaction to those excesses–I would argue that the country emerged a fairer and more equal place. I  hope we can say the same thing about our current divisions fifty years from now.

Martin Luther King was certainly right about one thing: the arc of history does bend slowly.

 

What Planet Do They Live On?

Yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court effectively eviscerated the Voting Rights Act.

Without bothering to identify precisely what part of the constitution it violated, the Court invalidated Congress’ most recent identification, in Section 4, of the states subject to the operation of Section 5. Section 5 requires that the states so identified obtain prior approval of changes to their voting laws.

According to the majority decision, efforts to suppress minority voting are no longer a problem in the states subject to the act.  The current coverage system, according to Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

Evidently,  the newspapers on whatever planet Roberts lives on haven’t covered the persistent and concerted efforts at vote suppression that have characterized the last two election cycles.

As the New York Times noted,

The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Texas announced shortly after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.

In a saner age, the opinion would not be so devastating; it explicitly allows Congress to “update” the list of states subject to Section Five.

If we had a Congress rather than a partisan zoo, that might actually happen. As it is, however, remedial action is unlikely. When an aide to a Republican House member was asked when Congress might revisit the matter, he responded “Sometime after the Rapture.”

It’s going to get very ugly.