Paula Dean, the Voting Rights Act, the Affirmative Action Rulings, and Changes in American Attitudes towards Racist Language and Race

If your response to the title of this post is that this seems too broad a range of topics to tackle in a single blog post, give me a chance. I will try to be more succinct than I sometimes am.

The one thing that Paula Dean has said during her weepy apology tour of the morning talk shows and cable news shows that is absolutely true is that if we were all held publicly accountable for the most stupidly insensitive and offensive things that we have ever said, we would all be subject to the figurative stoning that she is experiencing. Unfortunately for her, most of us are not public figures who will be publicly held accountable in this way.

I personally think that if she had made a career out of cooking healthy dishes and had not previously created controversy by trying to become a spokesperson for Type 2 Diabetes when her career has been based on promoting the very food choices that most contribute to the incidence of the disease, she would have gotten off somewhat easier on the racist comments. More people would have given her a pass if they were convinced that it was something that she had said at some ambiguous time in the past—though she kind of sabotaged that rationalization by overplaying it, as if she were now a centenarian who could barely remember the grand balls and banquets on those ante-bellum plantations.

The rush to desert her by her corporate sponsors has been both predictable and predictably hypocritical. Many of those same corporations have been huge contributors to groups such as ALEC which have promoted measures that have had the effect of limiting voting by racial minorities, undermining Affirmative Action, and creating economic conditions that have made increasing numbers of workers unemployed, underemployed, and contingently employed and that have reduced the salaries, benefits, and union rights of many other workers still employed full-time. All of these economic conditions have unarguably had a much more devastating impact on African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans than on non-Hispanic White Americans.

Indeed, the manifold statistical evidence of the especially devastating impact that the Great Recession has had on African-American and Hispanic-American workers and communities should be sufficient evidence that racial minorities in this country have not achieved anything close to economic parity and that Affirmative Action is still necessary.

Likewise, given the proliferation of voter-suppression laws that were passed ahead of the last presidential election under the very thin guise that they were necessary measures to address in-person voter fraud, which is almost non-existent, the Supreme Court’s explanation for effectively dismantling the Voting Rights Act is ludicrous. It is very telling and not at all coincidental that the GOP-dominated legislatures in four Southern states have immediately rushed to pass very onerous voter I.D. laws.

Indeed, it is not coincidental that the same people supporting the end of Affirmative Action are also supporting the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. Nor is it coincidental that they make the same basic argument to support both positions: that is, times have changed since the laws were passed and such laws depend on stereotypes that cannot now be supported without exception (as if anything could be). So, in the case of Affirmative Action, increases in the number of affluent African-Americans are pointed to as giving select African-Americans a very unfair advantage in terms of college admissions and job opportunities. And, the lack of openly racist voting restrictions in the states of the Deep South seems to suggest that whatever impediments to minority voting do exist, they are less centered in the Deep South than they once were.

Without embracing either of these arguments, I would accept the broader argument that both laws need updating if I thought that there was even the remotest chance that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives would even allow open debate, never mind a full vote, on such legislation. That is, I think that most reasonable people would support an update to Affirmative Action that based it more on economic background than simply on race, as long as the economic conditions of whole communities and not just of individual families were somehow factored in. For whatever the disadvantages of growing up in a poor family are, they are greatly compounded by growing up in an impoverished community. And, logically, the GOP should support such a position because it does not, in simplistic terms, reward any individual lack of initiative or evasion of personal responsibility. Likewise, I think that most reasonable people would support a revision to the Voting Rights Act that simply mandates that any district that has less than a certain percentage of turnout among any demographic group should be investigated by a non-partisan commission that will determine how greater turnout among those groups needs to be encouraged. I suspect that the basic truth is that all poor people in this country vote less frequently than the affluent and that their low voter turnout, in combination with their inability to create political influence through large campaign contributions, explains the skewed, endless concern about the taxation of the wealthiest Americans and the inattention to, if not denigration of, the basic needs of the poorest Americans. This commission could look at turnout over some designated, extended period, rather than at turnout in any individual election cycle, but it would almost certainly require some nationwide limitations on gerrymandering.

But, of course, none of this will ever happen simply because the GOP has made criticism of “abuses” of Affirmative Action a long-standing part of its political talking points, and at the state level, most of the voter-suppression legislation has been coming out of GOP-dominated legislatures. And I anticipate that there will be comments in response to this post that reflexively assert that I am engaging in some sort of reverse racism by suggesting that those who are opponents of Affirmative Action and proponents of onerous voter I.D. laws are even thinking about race.

So I think that the whole controversy about Paula Dean’s racist comments is both indicative of and a distraction from our continuing issues with race—that is, such debates provide the illusion that we are getting to the heart of our continuing issues with race when they don’t have anything to do with the real conditions that insure that those issues will be of continuing, significant concern.

I will close with a piece that I came across at a site devoted to the history of Duryea, Pennsylvania, the hometown of my maternal grandfather. His name was Michael Poskonski, and his father and most of the other immigrants who settled in that small village were coal miners. My grandfather was a breaker boy, but that experience seems to have made him somewhat singularly determined to escape the mines and, in the process, the village. A breaker was a building that ground the large chunks of mined coal into smaller pieces that were then sorted by size (which determined the kinds of commercial or residential furnaces in which they could be used) through a conveyor belt of differently sized screens. The breaker boys would sit on small planks laid across these endlessly shifting screens and pick out any lignite, slate, or other rock that was not anthracite coal. The work was back-breaking, put their fingers and hands at great risk, and paid about a dollar a week. The breaker boys were typically between seven and ten years of age, at which age they would take jobs in the mines, though they were not supposed to be actually mining coal until they were fourteen.

Despite these hard realities, I had always imagined my grandfather’s boyhood through a nostalgic gauze that was reinforced by our frequent visits to my many great aunts’ and uncles’ homes in the village (my grandfather was the oldest of his parents’ thirteen children who reached adulthood). Even when my grandfather recounted his one experience swimming, which ended with his father whipping him with a birch branch because he had been told to stay out of the Susquehanna River, which ran directly behind their house and was notorious for its undercurrents, the gist of the story seemed more funny than painful. So the following item, originally published in 1898 (when my grandfather would have been seven years old and already a breaker boy) in the Scranton Times, came as something of a shock to me:

“No town of the wild and wooly West has a more horrible record than the little mining village of Duryea, in Luzerne County. Old Forge is close to the former, and the twin places are a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, judging by the many crimes recorded. Our local columns today report another murder at Duryea. Ex-Postmaster M. F. Corcoran, a most highly respected and esteemed citizen, was murdered while endeavoring to protect his premises from a band of burglars. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Times pointed out to the better class of people of Duryea, in view of the reign of lawlessness in that place, that they would do well to have better police protection. It is possible that the burglars and thugs who have been making such a bloody record in the above locality the past year or two are not residents of the place, yet there is a very tough class of foreigners in that section of Luzerne County. Slavs and Italians of the lowest class, who work in the mines and thereabouts, having taken the place of American workers.”

If you don’t hear echoes of the issues swirling in and around the George Zimmerman murder trial and the broader debates over gun rights and gun violence in this country, you have not actually been paying attention to the discussions of those issues. Our notions of criminality and justice, as well as our notions of economic opportunity and fair treatment, have always been defined to some significant degree by our assumptions about race—or, ethnicity—and class. We keep thinking that we have moved “beyond it” or that we are now “over it,” but thinking such things is actually not much different than Paula Dean’s thinking that having an all-Black staff at a “plantation-themed” wedding is simply nostalgic and “fun” (which, by the way, is not at all far removed from the much more common rationalizations for continuing to display the Confederate flag).

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