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Backslide in America's "National conversation on race" | Race-Talk | 299

Backslide in America's "National conversation on race"

Filed under: Featured,Politics,Talk About Race,US |

Last week, the so-called national conversation on race was dominated by voices that would roll back the Civil Rights Movement.  First, there were loud calls for an end to the basic religious freedoms of Muslim Americans.  Then, a firestorm surrounded false charges of “reverse racism” involving Shirley Sherrod, a civil servant in Georgia.  Finally, a respected US Senator summarized the week’s events by demanding an end to affirmative action.  It seems that these three issues have little connection – the construction of a mosque in Manhattan, the wrongful dismissal of a civil servant in Georgia, and the opinions of a US Senator from Virginia.  But there is a connection: all three of these moments happening together provide a harrowing lesson about the state of civil rights in the US today.  The lesson of this sorry chapter in America’s ongoing history with racism is that affirmative action is still needed now, perhaps more than ever.

The “Ground Zero Mosque,” which is actually Cordoba House, an interfaith community center in Lower Manhattan, was engulfed in a furor last week, started by right-wing politicians including former Governor Sarah Palin.  Why the sudden outrage?  That’s the question that needs to be asked – where did this mosque issue come from?  But instead, incredibly, the discussion around Cordoba House has centered on whether Muslims have gone too far by planning to pray somewhere in lower Manhattan.  The analysis in the media centers not on the perpetrators of the Muslim-bashing, but on whether Muslims can ever really, truly be Americans.  Well, of course they can – Muslims have been Americans ever since the beginning of the United States.  The real question is whether anyone who truly believed in American values would ever demand an end to a project like Cordoba House.

The manufactured outrage over Cordoba House joins a long history of attacks on Muslim Americans.  There have been all too many calls to curtail the civil rights of Muslim Americans, although such voices are usually drowned out by a reassertion of basic American values of freedom and equality for all.  Lately, however, outsized demands for restricting civil rights for American Muslims have gotten louder and impossible to ignore.  Lieutenant Governor Ronald Ramsey (R) of Tennessee, for example, recently said that freedom of religion might not apply to Muslims, saying:

You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it.

Why is this happening now?  This is ugly, dirty, standard-issue politics, pure and simple. The reason that Palin, Ramsey, and other Republican figures are making anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic statements today is to keep the Republican Party entrenched in the fundamentalist Christian community.  They want to get out the Republican vote by whipping up the excitement of all the Christian fundamentalists who believe that only Christians have a right to worship in the United States.

The Republican Party has stood for intolerance for a long time, but the intensity of the Republican rhetorical attack on Muslims in the past few months has been nothing short of frightening.  From the end of the Civil Rights Movement until recently, only a few Republicans on the far right fringe would dare to vilify a minority group so brazenly.  Today, we see mainstream Republican leaders openly and fearlessly calling for an end to religious freedom in the United States.  The media’s all-too-predictable willingness to go along (“are Muslims really Americans?” – not “should Palin respect religious freedom?”) shows how dangerously widespread these anti-American ideas have become.

What’s worse, even some Democratic leaders now believe that basic civil rights work is over.  Into today’s racialized environment — where bogus “reverse racism” charges can end the career of a dedicated public servant in less than 24 hours, and where bogus “Ground Zero Mosque” fearmongering masquerades as apple-pie American virtue – this is the environment into which Senator James Webb (D-VA) declares that the work of the Civil Rights Movement has ended.

Senator Jim Webb

In a Wall Street Journal opinion article published the same week when the mosque controversy raged, Senator Webb said that white people have been unfairly hurt by affirmative action policies that recognize the existence of racism – racism that affects both African Americans and recent immigrants.  Senator Webb apparently has forgotten that the unemployment rate for blacks (15.4%) and Latinos (12.4%) has been persistently much higher than that of whites (8.6%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Senator Webb has also forgotten that immigrant laborers (mostly Latinos) work in American fields in conditions called “close to slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Senator Webb also is not aware that the Pew Center on the States found that in 2008, 1 in 36 Latino American men were in prison, and 1 in 15 black men, but only 1 in 106 white men – disparities explained only by systematic racism.  I’m not sure where Senator Webb gets his evidence that white people have been unfairly hindered by racist polices.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, affirmative action policies, which take present-day (and historical) racist discrimination into account and move to level the playing field, have run their course, Webb insists.  He claims that affirmative action programs should not help immigrants and all people of color, because affirmative action programs were originally intended to help African Americans only.  He says, referring to affirmative action, “These programs have damaged racial harmony.”

Yes, Senator Webb – “these programs” have damaged racial harmony.  Surely, it must be these affirmative action programs (what’s left of them) that are the biggest problem in American race relations today, not an immigration policy that forces 11 million people to live in the shadows, and not a drug war policy that incarcerates mostly non-whites.  Webb apparently thinks there’s no racial problem at all with politicians making statements that try to court white voters by appealing to a racialized fear of immigrants.  Webb concludes his call for racial harmony by trying to pit white Americans, immigrants, and African Americans against one another:

In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations. These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived….

Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.

Webb and Palin’s statements both reach out to, validate, and act on the racial fear that America is being overrun by immigrants.  This kind of intolerance is to be expected from the ilk of Palin, but Webb’s ignorant statement against affirmative action shows the degree to which America’s progress against racism has suffered a backslide in recent years – even after the election of an African American president.

America still needs affirmative action for all people of color, because racism is alive and well.  Contrary to Senator Webb’s fear that whites are routinely victimized by runaway affirmative action policies, affirmative action is already all but gone – the Supreme Court has ruled again and again to limit it.  America still needs affirmative action policies in hiring, in college admissions, and in awarding government contracts that give a fair advantage to members of minority groups that face systematic racism.  That’s the only way to level the playing field.  That’s the only way to end white supremacy.  We need to explicitly recognize and accept the role that race plays, and then counteract it with affirmative action.

Senator Webb and Governor Palin do not get to decide when the work of the Civil Rights Movement is done.  The work of the Civil Rights Movement will be done when there are no questions about where Muslims worship in the United States, and when there are no public servants falsely vilified on television for being “reverse racists.”  We still have a long way to go.

Photo: Opponents of proposed Islamic center in New York hold up signs at a community meeting. Credit: Getty Images.


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