Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Race, History, and Political Affiliation

Last month, Martin Luther King quotes popped up on Facebook to celebrate the great civil rights leader's birthday. Now that we're in Black History Month, I'm pleased to see more of his words making the rounds in social media.
            Unfortunately, along with King's inspiring quotes, I've read many comments claiming that King himself was a Republican who would oppose today's liberals. King generally kept his political affiliation neutral, but calling him a Republican is simply ridiculous.

            King voted for John Kennedy in 1960 and encouraged people to vote against Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. He supported Planned Parenthood, unions, non-violence, and an increased minimum wage, among other liberal causes. How would those views play in today's Republican party? Not well.

            If King were indeed a Republican, then we should expect that Republicans favored the holiday we celebrate in his honor, shouldn't we? Yet that was clearly not the case.

            The law establishing Martin Luther King Day passed Congress in 1983 by a significant margin, primarily based on overwhelming support form Democrats. The president at the time, Republican Ronald Reagan, originally opposed the holiday, but he changed his mind and signed it when it passed with a vet-proof margin. A significant number of Congressional Republicans opposed the holiday, including six current Republicans still serving in Congress. Among them are such prominent figures as Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House, and Orrin Hatch, the Republican chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

            The people who want us to believe the fiction that King was a Republican also like to claim that Democrats are the real bigots because they fought for slavery, founded the KKK, and opposed the Civil Rights Act.

            These claims bear only a superficial resemblance to reality. Yes, Lincoln was a Republican, and some Democrats opposed civil rights half a century ago. But the geographical north/south and philosophical liberal/conservative distinctions are far more telling than party affiliation when looking at the complex history of racial issues.

            Lincoln was a Northern liberal who liberated the slaves. (Yes, Republicans could be liberal back then, shocking though that may seem today.) Democrats of that era included many Southern conservatives who wanted to conserve slavery.

            Democrats led the nation in addressing the issue of racism well before passage of the Civil Rights Act. In 1946, President Harry Truman, a Democrat, created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, to address the issue of racism in America. The commission condemned lynching and called for desegregation of bus, train, and air travel, along with protection of voting rights. Truman's support for, in his own words, "equal economic opportunities, equal rights of citizenship, and equal educational opportunities for all our people, whatever their race or religion or status of birth," is exactly where the Democratic Party still stands today.

            Truman also fully desegregated the military for the first time in American history with his 1948 Executive Order 9981, which read, in part "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." Truman had to use an executive order for the action because Congress, notably Republicans, had failed to act on the issue. I'm sure President Obama can relate to Truman's frustration with the "Do-Nothing Congress" of the day.

            In the 1960s, the north/south, liberal/conservative divide was again a strong force. Northern liberals, both Democrats and Republicans, overwhelmingly supported civil rights, while Southern conservatives of both parties overwhelmingly voted against the Civil Rights Act. And a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The Republican who lost to Johnson, Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act and voted against it in the Senate.

            The racist Southern Democrats then became Republicans (Strom Thurmond, most famously) or joined third parties (George Wallace). Southern Democrats who renounced previous racist views (Robert Byrd) remained Democrats. Civil rights leaders from the 1960s who are still active in politics today (John Lewis) are all Democrats. Ask John Lewis if Martin Luther King would be a Republican today. Lewis has a great laugh and scathing glare for foolish questions.

            Calling today's Democrats racist because of the party's past makes as much sense as bragging that Bill Russell and Carl Yastrzemski will lead the Celtics and Red Sox to championships this year. That nonsense would get you laughed out of any tavern in Beantown. Teams change over time. Political parties do the same.

            In recent years, the South has become reliably Republican. In fact, when you superimpose a U.S. map during the Civil War onto a map of the 2012 presidential election, the results are startling. Basically, President Obama dominated the Union, and Mitt Romney surged in the Confederacy.

            That's not to say that today's Republicans are uniformly racist. The purpose of this article isn't to step in off the street and start shouting that all Republicans are racist. This article is in response to the false claim that Democrats are racist. Obviously, not all Republicans are racist. But their rhetoric is racially charged, to say the least. Would the anti-Obama "birthers" have surfaced if his father had white skin and been born in, say, England? Not likely.

            One current issue analogous to slavery and civil rights is immigration. Democrats have consistently advocated a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who follow the law and contribute to society. Republicans briefly flirted with that position a few years ago but now are overwhelmingly opposed to immigration reform. Their presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, has based much of his campaign on deporting millions of brown-skinned immigrants and blocking Muslims from entering the country.

            White supremacists recently sent out a wave of robocalls supporting Trump's candidacy, including the guy who inspired Dylann Roof, the racist shooter who murdered nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church in June 2015. Trump himself routinely retweets white supremacists without a second thought. One such tweet included a chart that blamed 81% of white murder victims on African-American killers, a stunningly racist lie considering the actual number is 15%. Hey, Trump was only off by a 540%. No one ever said his math skills were as "huge" as his ego.

            What high-profile Democrats take such discriminatory positions, get that kind of racist support, or exaggerate racial crime statistics so ridiculously? None, obviously.

            How many Republican civil rights leaders has our country seen in the past fifty years? How many Democrats have run a national campaign based on the "southern strategy" of appealing directly to racist white voters? How many KKK leaders have endorsed Democrats for president in recent decades? None, none, and none.

            What does it say about a party that has to go back to the 1960s or even the 1860s to find positive role models on civil rights issues? Nothing good.

            How about the civil rights of LGBT people? The KKK has long hated gay people, and many conservatives love to rail against "the homosexual agenda" (an agenda that, in reality, actually recognizes gay people as fully human people). Democrats have consistently supported LGBT civil rights, while Republicans have opposed them, often with hell-fire rhetoric. Future generations will look back at today's anti-gay Republicans very much as we look back at the people who fought for slavery and segregation.

            How do many Republicans respond to the "Black Lives Matter" movement? By ignoring the fact that African-Americans are far more likely to be victimized by bad apple law enforcement officers than white Americans are. Many Republicans are fond of retorting that "all lives matter!" as if an appropriate response to donating to the American Heart Association would be to object and claim that "all diseases matter!"

            How do many Republicans respond to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager walking in his own father's neighborhood? By calling him a "thug," and making a folk hero out of his killer, George Zimmerman, an obviously terrible person who has gone on to several subsequent arrests for violent acts.

            How do many Republicans respond to the fact that African-Americans are statistically more prone to the economic inequalities of our corporate culture? By ignoring long-term institutional racism and claiming that there has been a "breakdown in the black family." Isn't that just a slightly more polite way of saying that African-Americans are somehow morally inferior? Yet Republicans toss around this "breakdown of the black family" claim as if it's a scholarly fact rather than a coded phrase to mask a racial insult.

            Is voting a civil rights issue? If so, that's another area where Republicans have failed African-Americans. Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the Republican Party has been crying foul and making up charges of rampant voter fraud. The reality is that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare, almost to the point on nonexistence. That fact hasn't stopped Republicans from enacting voter suppression laws that, not coincidentally, disproportionately affect African-American voters. How many Democrats have pushed voter suppression laws? None. In fact, Democrats support laws that make voting easier for everyone.

            How do many Republicans respond to the issue of the Confederate flag? By claiming that it's a symbol of cultural pride that has nothing to do with slavery or racism. Do they really expect us to believe that the KKK waves the Confederate flag to celebrate their culture rather than their hatred? Some Republican politicians have bowed to public pressure and changed their views on the Confederate flag, but the fact that the issue is still under debate among many Republicans is a clear sign of their confusion on the issue of race in American history.

            Let's not forget that the KKK hates Catholic and Jewish people just about as much as they hated African-Americans. Catholics have long been supporters of the Democratic Party. That has changed in recent years as the Republican Party has fully embraced the Catholic Church's official position opposing birth control and abortion. Actual Catholic voters don't follow institutional dogma as closely, and Obama still won the Catholic vote over Romney in 2012 by a slight margin. Jewish voters have routinely favored Democratic Presidential candidates over Republicans by a three-to-one margin for more than a century. Are all those Catholic and Jewish voters secretly KKK members? Umm … no.

            A white Republican friend of mine recently opined that African-Americans have been fooled into supporting Democrats by the lure of welfare and other giveaways supposedly promised by President Obama. Really? He was trying to make the case that he's not racist by claiming that nearly 95% of African-Americans voters supported Obama not because they gave his candidacy the same thoughtful consideration he assumes of every other voter, but because they wanted what Romney himself called, "free stuff." Does my Republican friend honestly believe it's not racist to imply that African-Americans are foolish, selfish, and lazy?

            My Republican friend told me I was a typical closeted-racist Democrat for "playing the race card" by pointing out the racial implications of his claim. That's called "projection," a term that can be found in any dictionary of psychological terms. My friend would rather no one responded to his views on race. But silence on any issue is a form of consent. Should we give our consent to any form of racism, even when it's masked in obvious dog-whistle terminology? Of course not.

            In the end, how can anyone possibly claim that the party that supports humane immigration and LGBT policies and that elected our first African-American president is bigoted while the party that demeans, marginalizes, and demonizes large groups of people is morally superior? How would Martin Luther King answer that question? I wish he were still here so that we could ask him.


Poor Chris Christie had a not-so-super Tuesday. Make a bed? Then lie in it, dude.

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