Monday, August 12, 2013

Two Steps Forward

This year has at times felt like one body blow after another in the ongoing battle to protect civil rights and expand racial equality. The Supreme Court cut a huge hole out of the Voting Rights Act, and the decades-long process of rolling back gains in affirmative action and school desegregation continues apace. And then there was all the issues swirling around the George Zimmerman verdict. It has become clear that there is a sustained, coordinated assault against the gains the civil rights movement made half a century ago. This is all the more troubling when we come to grips with the extent to which the movement fell short of its goals in the first place. We like to think the civil rights movement swept everything before it. It's true that it achieved significant parts of its agenda. But it was also defeated.

And the conservative forces that defeated it have not gone away. They retrenched and are now resurgent in many states, in the U.S. House, and in the Supreme Court. They are all the more powerful for having appropriated the movement's legacy and successfully delegitimized discussion of the plain truth: the United States is shot through with racism in its public policy and in its political culture, a fact that is obvious to all those able to imagine a society without racial privilege. But the progress we have made is incorporated into the remaining racist redoubts of law and tradition and thereby becomes a means of resisting more progress.

The racism is particularly pronounced in conservatism, whose most popular spokespersons defend White supremacy unfailingly. It manifests itself in newly created fictions about voter fraud and the resulting wave of vote suppression laws. But as a cursory look at any Democratically controlled big city will reveal, racial oppression is a bipartisan White American tradition.

I didn't mean to rant because this is all a prelude to two pieces of spectacular news this morning. First, Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce a move to get around Federal minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes. You can see the details here, but the point is that the Obama administration is trying to reduce the Federal prison population by sidestepping the minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. Part of the reason for doing this is the racist impact of these laws. Why not go through congress and actually change the law? First, because the House doesn't pass anything. Second, because the House especially doesn't pass anything that advances racial justice.

The second and perhaps even more important development is that a federal judge this morning gave a giant slap down to the city of New York and Mayor Bloomberg's racist stop-and-frisk policies. It was about as unequivocal a ruling as we could have hoped for. The judge said the city deliberately violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of New Yorkers over the years and ran roughshod over the fourth and fourteenth amendments.

This is a good reminder of how racism in the American political system is very much a bipartisan affair. Liberals and Democrats give themselves way too much credit. Americans have a tendency to deplore symbolic racism while not worrying about racist acts that actually ruin people's lives. Rush Limbaugh, for example, is a disrespectable figure who is widely maligned and ridiculed. It is right that he should be so, but think about this: Mayor Bloomberg has done much more to actually inflict acts of racism on real people in their daily lives than Rush Limbaugh ever has. Yet because he is rich and powerful and does not say outrageous things, Bloomberg is considered respectable.

If you think Bloomberg ought to be a respectable figure, try to imagine an America in which its premier city was led by a Black mayor who systematically and deliberately (and often violently) stopped hundreds of thousands of its White residents each year without any suspicion beyond their color. Would that mayor be respectable? For skeptics thinking this scenario leaves out the important variable of crime rates, it is crucial to know that the judge found that New York City disproportionally targeted racial minorities even after controlling for all other variables.

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