Friday, July 20, 2007

Black Thursday


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Two things that happened on Thursday, June 28 were so dire in their portents for America’s political future that the day may well go down in history as “Black Thursday.” First, the U.S. Supreme Court paid lip service to the luminous anti-discrimination decision, Brown v. Board of Education, from 1954 while totally going against its spirit, throwing out two attempts to integrate public schools in Seattle and Louisville on the ground that school districts can’t make race a factor in assigning children to schools even to undo the effects of over a century of past discrimination against students of color. Then, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly killed a bad immigration “reform” bill because of organized political pressure from talk-radio hosts and other members of the rabid Right because it wasn’t punitive enough against so-called “illegal” immigrants.

The events of Black Thursday were victories for the creeping racism that has festered in the American body politic ever since the Republicans became the dominant U.S. political party in 1968 through Richard Nixon’s and Strom Thurmond’s so-called “Southern strategy.” This unholy alliance between the Republican Right of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and “solid South” Democrats-turned-Republicans like Thurmond was originally intended to blunt the power of George Wallace’s openly racist 1968 Presidential campaign and prevent it from splitting the Right-wing vote and thereby keeping the Democrats in power. But, especially since Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 cemented the Right-wing triumphs of 1968 (in which Nixon and Wallace combined won 57 percent of the vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent) and 1972 (in which Nixon trounced George McGovern, 61 to 39 percent), it’s become a permanent fixture of American politics and has powered a Right-wing realignment that has turned the U.S. into a far more reactionary country than it was from 1932 to 1968.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” chief justice John Roberts — one of the two George W. Bush appointees who have changed the complexion of the Supreme Court and pushed it even farther Right — wrote in the court’s opinion. It’s a notion that has a superficial appeal. Certainly it appealed to California voters when they overwhelmingly passed Ward Connerly’s initiative to ban affirmative action in public colleges and universities. We’d all like to believe that the U.S. has not only abolished hard-line legal segregation of the races but achieved a nirvana of racial equality in which we are indeed judged, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in about the only words out of his mouth Rightists ever quote, not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

The only trouble is, as the old song says, ’tain’t so, honey, ’tain’t so. While Roberts and Anthony Kennedy, the mostly Right-wing but sometimes surprisingly liberal (especially on juvenile executions and Queer rights) justice who supplied the crucial fifth vote to overturn the Seattle and Louisville plans, talked in majestic legal generalities, Stephen Breyer, who wrote the dissenting opinion, cited cold, hard facts. His opinion ended with two tables and two graphs dramatically documenting how schools in the U.S. in general — and in Seattle in particular — have become more, not less, mono-racial over the years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Breyer’s most depressing exhibit was a graph called “Percentage of White Students in Schools Attended by the Average Black Student, 1968-2000,” which shows a steady downward trend in school integration from a peak of 36 percent in the 1980’s to less than 30 percent today. Breyer’s opinion is in the tradition of one of the Supreme Court’s greatest liberals, Louis D. Brandeis, who even before he was appointed as a justice himself practiced cases before the court and won approval for laws to protect workers’ health and safety by documenting in extensive detail just what happened to people when those laws did not exist.

Unfortunately, Justice Roberts’ opinion harkened back to an even earlier stage in the Court’s history, when its justices saw themselves as protecting the rich and powerful against the claims of working people and people of color. In 1883, the Court threw out the civil-rights act passed by Congress in 1875, which banned racial segregation in public accommodations. Justice Joseph Bradley, for the court majority, wrote that for African-Americans — most of whom had been slaves until just 18 years before Bradley wrote — sooner or later “there must be some stage in the process of elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights, as a citizen or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected.” After that case — and the more famous, and even more obnoxious, Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which specifically allowed so-called “separate but equal” segregation (of course, it was never truly equal) — African-Americans were reduced to a legally sanctioned second-class status. It wasn’t until 1964 that Congress again banned segregation in public accommodations — and this time Earl Warren’s Supreme Court, the most liberal in our history, said such a law was constitutional.

The only real difference between Justice Bradley and Justice Roberts on racial issues is that Bradley was a better writer. Just as the current Right wants to remove all government regulation on corporations and the economy, and return to the lassiez-faire days of the robber barons of the late 19th century — in which there were a handful of filthy-rich Americans, great masses living in virtual destitution, and not much of a middle class in between — they want to proclaim that a “color-blind” America really exists, and say that if African-Americans are still poorer than other people it’s their own damned fault, and maybe they really are racially inferior after all. Though Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in the Seattle and Louisville school cases left open a vague hope that he might day join the four reason-based justices in acknowledging some sort of race-based remedy for America’s centuries of discrimination against African-Americans in education, the overall message from the Supreme Court to the Black community is from now on, you’re on your own. It took 58 years for the Court to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson and perceive the reality that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” — and 53 years after Brown for the Court to retreat to the racial certainties of the 19th century.

If the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Black Thursday represented a return to its historic role limiting instead of advancing civil and human rights, the U.S. Senate’s refusal even to debate a controversial immigration reform bill demonstrated the brute power of the carefully cultivated mass Right created largely by the alternative Right-wing media, particularly talk radio. It’s true that this “reform” put the progressive community in a bind — a quite common one in these days of Right-wing dominance of American politics — in which the alternative was support a dreadful bill that would impose punitive conditions on current undocumented (so-called “illegal”) immigrants seeking legal status, create a sweeping guest-worker program that would undermine U.S. wages and accelerate the race to the bottom already under way under lassiez-faire capitalism and pro-corporate globalization, and wreck 42 years of enlightened, humane immigration policy based on family unification; or defeat it and hand the Right a political victory.

That dilemma was vividly demonstrated last May 24, when immigration activists Mary Moreno Richardson, daughter of undocumented immigrants and reverend canon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral near Balboa Park; and Lilia Velasquez, immigration-rights attorney and adjunct professor at California Western School of Law, clashed on the issue at a San Diego Democratic Club meeting. Richardson was guardedly optimistic about the bill and said she hoped it would be the basis for negotiations on both sides. Velasquez said the bill was so badly flawed she’d rather see no bill at all. “We think we’re better off with the bad status quo than with a bill that will make things worse,” Velasquez said. “We’re hoping it won’t happen this year. I think the issue is too controversial for any of the presidential candidates to take it on next year. If it doesn’t pass this year, it probably won’t happen until 2009, and until then we’ll have the Minutemen and all that chaos.”

If I’d been called by a pollster and asked about the grand “compromise” immigration bill — worked out in secret by 14 Senators from both major parties and not seen by anyone else in Congress until they actually introduced it — I’d have said, especially after I heard Velasquez give the speech I just quoted, that I was against it. And that answer would have been read as a triumph for the Right. The Right has achieved such an extraordinary level of organization and media access in this country — one the Left can’t hope to duplicate in a thousand years — that on issue after issue the Right is able to define the agenda and, if not get absolutely everything it wants, at least set the terms of the debate and, in the worlds of lingustics professor and political consultant George Lakoff, “frame” issues in ways that give them built-in advantages.

Since the quiet repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987, which required radio and TV broadcasters to present more than one point of view if they covered political issues at all, the radical Right has created what amounts to a second corporate media party. Just as there are two corporate-dominated political parties in the U.S. — as well as a small host of alternative parties vying for, and hardly ever getting, public attention — so there are two corporate media parties. There’s the center-Right corporate media party of NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, PBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the other so-called “establishment” media outlets — and there’s the scrappy far-Right corporate media party of talk radio, Fox News, the Washington Times, the American Spectator and the like. Many Left media analysts don’t recognize this distinction — they get confused because the same giant media conglomerates own the outlets for both — but it’s real, and as writers like Eric Alterman, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber have documented, not only has the far-Right corporate media party built its own audience, its ceaseless attacks on the center-Right corporate media party as the “liberal media” have moved all public discourse in the U.S. ever farther Right.

As an issue, immigration was a Godsend for the far-Right corporate media in general and talk radio in particular. In an era when it’s not O.K. to air your racism blatantly, openly and proudly (just ask Don Imus) but it is O.K. to speak in racial code, immigration gave talk radio hosts a chance to sound off against Latinos endlessly while occasionally disclaiming, “We don’t hate them because they’re Latino. We hate them because they’re illegal!” (The last time any radio personalities attacked any identifiable group so viciously, and so incessantly, as Rush Limbaugh and Roger Hedgecock go after “illegal” immigrants, their names were Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and their principal targets were Jews.) At a time when talk-radio hosts were worried about losing credibility because they automatically supported the Bush administration in general and the war on Iraq in particular at a time when the American people generally were becoming more and more disgusted with both, immigration gave them an excuse to join the anti-Bush bandwagon by attacking him from the Right.

The strategy worked. The audience Limbaugh, Hedgecock and their colleagues have carefully built up over the years and trained as effectively and completely as Pavlov trained his dogs swung into action. Senators reported their mail was running 100-to-1 against the immigration bill. Even some of the Senators who’d worked on the thing in secret publicly abandoned it to sate their drooling talk-radio-conditioned constituents. A poor immigration reform bill which progressives should have attacked on its (lack of) merits became, instead, another excuse for the Right to roll right over the center and the Left, and to show that despite the minor blip of the 2006 elections, the efforts of the radical Right to achieve full-spectrum dominance over U.S. politics continues apace.

Even the attempts by moderates to challenge the Right’s immigration victory backfired big-time. When center-Right media commentator David Broder sounded off in his July 5 Washington Post column,, “A Mob-Rule Moment,” and wrote, “A particularly virulent strain of populism has made official Washington altogether too responsive to public opinion,” Rush Limbaugh was right on him that morning, denouncing him (with some justice) as an elitist with no feeling for the real needs and desires of the American people. (Broder’s column had also criticized Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives for pandering to their base by quietly killing a bill to renew the “fast-track” authority by which presidents of both parties have negotiated job-killing, environment-destroying, corporation-enriching trade deals like NAFTA and its successors.) And when center-Right Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein dared to suggest that maybe it might be a good idea to consider re-enacting the Fairness Doctrine, Limbaugh emitted several days’ worth of screaming denunciations that compared the Fairness Doctrine to Stalinism. (I’m not making this up!)

The events of Black Thursday were a badly needed wake-up call to Democrats and progressives who came away from the November 2006 elections convinced that Bush’s drop in popularity and the Democratic recapture of Congress spelled the end for the Right-wing revolution that began under Nixon and became complete under Reagan. The defeat of the immigration bill showed the continuing power of Right-wing organization and Right-wing media to kill any but blatantly Right-wing solutions to America’s most intractable problems — immigration, the “war on terror,” health care, energy policy and the like. And the Supreme Court ruling on school integration warned that even if the Democrats keep control of Congress in 2008 and elect the next President, any progressive or even moderate programs that somehow make it through the gauntlets of big-money influence on politics and the relentless opposition of the organized Right will be fair game for invalidation at the hands of an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court. In the 1930’s, it was liberals and Leftists who were calling for judicial restraint, and Right-wingers who were hailing the activist judges of the U.S. Supreme Court who were throwing out the New Deal legislation willy-nilly. Those days could come again!