Monday, August 08, 2005

The Continuing Dilemma

All but the most intransigent, obtuse, or naïve among us know that the dilemma of race still vexes the United States, indeed the world. I did not need the beating of a young black man here in the UK, a young man taking his A-levels and with his entire life ahead of him, a beating that culminated with his death when one of his assailants put an axe through the back of his head, to remind me of that. Nor did I need to read in this morning’s New York Times about a black man being beaten and robbed by whites using racial slurs in Brooklyn this weekend to know as much.

No, race is still a problem with which we must deal, and it will continue to be for some time. In the last week or so several pieces in the news caught my attention. One of these was a New York Times op-ed written by John Lewis, one of my very favorite figures from the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis was one of the central Freedom Riders, and he bridged the gap between the original CORE group that received beatings in Anniston and Birmingham that effectively ended the first phase of the Rides and the student takeover of the Freedom Rides in Alabama and Mississippi. He gave the often-overlooked speech at the March on Washington that provided something of a reality check for those who would leave smitten by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquence. He would leave the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when that organization became more obsessed with racial purity than with racial justice. His record since then has earned him the title of “The Last Integrationist,” according to Sean Wilentz in a July 1996 cover article on Lewis in The New Republic.

Lewis is now a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia, and in his Times article he makes an impassioned defense of the Voting Rights Act, components of which are up for renewal in 2007. The most salient of the parts that will expire without Congressional action is Section 5, which requires states with a history of voting rights abuses to submit for review to a federal court or the Justice Department any changes to existing voting laws or procedures. Those who want to allow the act to lapse argue that it has become unnecessary. But color me skeptical of their claims. Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law forty years ago this past weekend, and its passage marked the apogee of the Johnson administration, which soon was swallowed by the quagmire of Vietnam. There was a reason that the act was so powerful – for the better part of a century and longer in some cases, states and localities had, through intimidation, coercion, bureaucracy, and legerdemain denied African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans the right to vote and to have that vote matter. It may well be true that many of the provisions of the act seem now to be anachronistic, but forty years is not an especially long time, and even if he engages in hyperbole at times (I have a hard time seeing how requiring a photo identification is in any substantial way a sign of racial bias, for example) Lewis makes a sound case for continuing legislation that finally allowed America to begin to live up to the promise it had for so long held.

Skepticism and cynicism are not the same thing, however. If I am skeptical of allowing certain states leeway that their history has not yet earned them, I am also more than willing to celebrate legitimate victories over past wrongs. The General Assembly of Virginia is granting scholarships of up to $5500 to allow dozens of its older citizens to complete educations that were halted when the state chose to close some of its public schools rather than integrate them in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Most noteworthy were the closings in Prince Edward County from 1959 to 1963. Although the vast number of recipients will be black, because white children were victimized as well, especially if they were poor and could not afford to go to private schools, they too are eligible for the compensation. This is good news and it should be celebrated.

Finally, The New Republic has a thought provoking article that looks at the nomination of John Roberts through the lens of the racial conservatism of the Reagan revolution. The argument is a compelling one: Roberts is not a racist, and no one should accuse him of as much. But the conservatism that he embraces an at times tread perilously close to a view on race that most Americans simply do not embrace. Similarly, Ronald Reagan was certainly not a racist, and it would be unfair to depict him as such. But when it came to matters involving race, he was almost always wrong, whether through being tone deaf, out of touch, or simply insensitive. John Roberts was one of the most reliably conservative voices on matters of race during his tenure in the Reagan administration. The Senate has not only the right but the responsibility to determine whether or not Roberts’ views have changed over the years, or if he stands by some of the same principles he advocated two decades ago. There would be no shame in evolution of his views. The shame would be if his design is such that he has not been intelligent enough to have changed.

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