Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Civil Rights Reboot - The Obama Administration's New Take

   On July 2, Rep. John Lewis wrote a blog post on Democrats.org, the website of the Democratic National Committee, marking the 48th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Lewis was personally involved in the struggle to secure full participation for blacks in the democratic process in this country.  Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution nearly a century before, the right to vote was still elusive for many blacks in America.  In the decades since the Civil Rights Act was passed, great progress has been made in guaranteeing the "blessings of liberty" for all Americans of all races, culminating in the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

    But Rep. Lewis does not spend much of his post celebrating the success of the Civil Rights movement.  The second paragraph contains some nods to progress, but both are quickly followed by "buts" tempering the successes.  The remainder of the post focuses on the "systematic effort to restrict access to the polls" that Lewis and the Democrats warn is spreading across the land.  The tone of the piece is that the Civil Rights struggle is far from over and the fight must continue.

    Downplaying progress is often a talking point of the Democrats when discussing any efforts to reform or strengthen voting laws.  It was just a little over a year ago that Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said that Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws."  Also in 2011, Lewis himself called voter ID laws a "poll tax."  Even when the Obama campaign launched their GottaVote.org website that Lewis references in his blog post, there was initially a statement that implied that blacks did not have the right to vote as late as 1915.  The statement was corrected within a day, but lingered for over two weeks on the Spanish language version of the site (I chronicled this in a series here, here, here, and here.)  To hear the Democrats tell it, the hard won victories of the Civil Rights movement are on the razor's edge.

    Given the tenuous nature of those Civil Rights victories,  you would expect that the White House would have mounted a concerted effort to make sure that gains were secured and the "many barriers [that] remain for the basic civil right of casting a ballot" that Lewis wrote about were broken down.  However, the section of the White House website dedicated to Civil Rights reveals a different priority.

    Fully eight of the eleven items on the Civil Rights "Progress" list deal with LGBT-related issues such as gay marriage, don't ask-don't tell repeal, and federal benefits for same-sex partners.  (One of the eight was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is named after a gay man and a black man who each were victims of terrible crimes.)  Of the remaining three items on the list, one is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, meant to restore "basic protections against pay discrimination for women and other workers," and another is the signing of settlements of six lawsuits, five brought by Native American tribes and one by black farmers.

    Further down on the page is a single statement addressing voting rights:
The President is committed to expanding funding for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to ensure that voting rights are protected and Americans do not suffer from increased discrimination during a time of economic distress. 
To say that traditional concerns of the Civil Rights movement have received nominal attention from this administration would be an understatement.  And yet John Lewis and other Democrats have continued to line up behind the president anyway.  Which, come to think of it, could explain why their concerns have received scant attention.  Why spend time and energy securing the support of voters who are already firmly in your corner?  Or is it that the "concerns" over traditional civil rights are overblown and the label is being broadly applied to secure the support of other constituent groups that are not quite as reliably Democratic?

    In any case, it is difficult to see how this president can claim much credit for carrying the torch on civil rights.  And indeed, as a town meeting in August 2011 with Rep. Maxine Waters, the frustration began to boil over:
“We don’t put pressure on the president,” said Waters. “Let me tell you why. We don’t put pressure on the president because ya’ll love the president. You love the president. You’re very proud…to have a black man [in the White House] …First time in the history of the United States of America. If we go after the president too hard, you’re going after us.”
“When you tell us it’s alright and you unleash us and you tell us you’re ready for us to have this conversation, we’re ready to have the conversation. The Congressional Black Caucus loves the president too. We’re supportive of the president but we’re getting tired ya’ll…we’re getting tired. And so, what we want to do is…we want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he’s prepared to lead on. We want to give him every opportunity…but our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is. We don’t know why on this trip that he’s in the United States now, he’s not in any black community…we don’t know that.”
    So what has happened since August 2011 that could change Waters outlook and that of the Congressional Black Caucus?  When the latest unemployment numbers were released, unemployment among blacks was up to 14.4%.  But Waters and the CBC have no intention of abandoning Obama, no matter what he does or doesn't do on "civil rights."  Their political fortunes are too closely connected.  But could the Obama administration's co-opting of the civil rights mantle for LGBT issues finally break the Democrats' hold on the black electorate?  The election in November should be a good indication if such a sea change is occuring.

    Oh... and the eleventh "civil rights" item of "progress" claimed by the White House, the one that Valerie Jarrett recently touted to the National Association of Black Journalists?
The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences and eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
Lighter sentences for drug offenders masquerading as "civil rights" for blacks.  Is that why Martin Luther King and John Lewis marched in Selma?  Was that the dream?

No comments:

Post a Comment