Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday December 7th, 2014

In his customary understatement when talking about race, President Barack Obama said, “Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis.” It reflects “a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”

Ferguson now takes its place among so many tragically similar incidents which raise profound questions about the way people of color are treated by America’s criminal justice system. And for all of the hopes raised by the election of the first African American president, it seems to me that across a broad spectrum, the issue of race is more pernicious today than it was prior to his taking office.

Six years ago. I spoke in Montpelier to the Central Vermont Anti-Racism Circles. The next presidential election was to take place in six weeks, and I had been asked to address the subject - Race in the Presidential Campaign: Transcendent or Still Toxic?

As an old white guy who had spent most of his life working overseas as a foreign correspondent covering the Cold War, Nuclear Arms Control and the Middle East, I was an unlikely choice to talk about race in American politics. But what was expected was that I would apply the skills I had developed over five decades to explain complex issues  - identify the major elements, provide historical context with significant details that many will be unaware of, fold in contemporary developments and finally offer a detached perspective on where things appear to be heading. I’ll spare you the whole speech, but this is the sense of what I had to say.

Race in American politics begins with the contradiction imbedded in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The reality is that in 1776, black slavery was an accepted fact throughout all of the thirteen colonies. Of the population of two and a half million, about five hundred thousand, or one in five were slaves. Also at that time Thomas Jefferson owned about 200 slaves, as did George Washington.

Furthermore, the otherwise admirable document out of which this country was born, the United States Constitution signed in 1787, contained what Obama and others have described as the “original sin” of racism. This reflected the political realities of the day. If the slave holding states could not get major concessions on the question of slavery, they would refuse to join the union. Perhaps the key concession involved how slaves would be counted. The compromise was that each slave would be considered three-fifths of a person. That gave the slave holding states a big boost in their total populations, and population determined the allocation of seats in Congress. As a result, Southerners dominated the presidency, the speakership of the House and the Supreme Court, right up until the Civil War.

While ultimately the Civil War was fought over slavery, it is remarkable how little of the race issue the war resolved. President Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves by executive order (the same device Obama is using to reform current Immigration Law.) Lincoln’s order was later ratified by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourteenth required states to provide equal protection to all citizens and the Fifteenth banned race based voting qualifications. But those postwar Amendments, all ratified by 1870, were subsequently negated in the segregated South by a web of insidious state laws and regulations which prevailed for the next ninety years.

Things began to change after World War II.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In 1948 President Harry Truman issued an executive order (again the mechanism that Obama is using on Immigration) to de-segregate the Armed Services. In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate education for black and white students was unconstitutional. Finally, with the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts - major achievements of both the Rev. Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson - the most egregious of states’ racist laws came off the books.

However, Southern Democrats then bolted their party in droves and attracted by President Richard Nixon’s cynical 1968 “Southern Strategy” they nearly all became Republicans. This, more than anything else, explains the Republican Party’s dramatic shift to the right, and the near elimination of its moderate Northern wing.

In my speech six years ago I concluded that if Obama should win the presidency, it would be possible to argue that the issue of race had been transcended, because the biggest taboo in American politics had been broken. Race wouldn’t cease to be a factor in politics, but it would no longer be the dominant one. It turns out I was very wrong.

I am not implying all Republicans are racists. What I am saying is that since Obama was elected, the Republican Party in both the House and the Senate, allowed itself to be captured by the Tea Party and other very conservative members. Many of these people are not exactly known for liberal or even moderate views on race. And even though they do not make up a majority in the Republican caucuses, the party leadership has been fearful of offending them, thereby ceding power to a notably hardline minority. How else to explain GOP leaders’ near silence during the racist inspired campaign involving numerous prominent Republicans, claiming Obama’s election was illegitimate because he was an alien?

Also inexplicable is the 2013 Supreme Court decision to gut much of the enforcement mechanism of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the highly questionable premise that racial attitudes had sufficiently improved so that such rules were no longer needed. About five seconds after that decision, Republican controlled states all over the country began instituting new election laws that have one clear function - suppressing the Black and Hispanic vote.

All that said, I regret to conclude that the issue of race in the American political system is alive and much too well.

 

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