Monday, March 31, 2008

Speaking Truth To Power

There’s a controversy brewing over the choice of Julian Bond, the head of the NAACP, as this year’s commencement speaker. Mike talked about this, and I figured I'd add my thoughts to the fray as well.

After the University made the announcement, the College Republicans came out swinging, complaining that Bond had insulted their party, accusing them of exploiting racial bigotry for political gain. In a Letter to the Editor published in Monday’s Hatchet, they play some creative games with history, trying to inoculate themselves against charges of racism by pointing out that some Democrats opposed racial integration and civil rights laws decades ago.

While the charge is technically true, it’s also misleading. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, there was a part of the Democratic Party—mostly white, conservative, southern, pro-segregation—who didn’t support civil rights reforms. I use the past tense, though, because those bigoted conservatives o longer Democrats—long ago they became Republicans, which is just what the GOP hoped for.

After the civil rights movement knocked down racial walls and ended segregation, the GOP saw an opportunity to win over racist anti-segregation southerners by appealing to their bigotry. Beginning with Richard Nixon and continuing until today, the GOP’s plan to win those voters over—known as the ‘Southern Strategy’—was a complete success. It’s why the solidly-Democratic south became the solidly-Republican south, and it has been a key to GOP electoral victories for decades.

Now, a lot of Republicans used to pretend the Southern Strategy didn’t exist, but that became hard to do after Ken Mehlman, the then-head of the RNC, came out and apologized for the Southern Strategy. Of course, he didn’t have GOP Senators and Congressman who benefited from the Southern Strategy resign, nor did that stop the National Republican Senatorial Committee from running an undeniably racist campaign against African-American Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. in 2006.

Nor has Mehlman’s apology stopped the Sothern Strategy fro being used by the right wing. Take this example: the right-wing loves to refer to Sen. Barack Obama by his full name—Barack Hussein Obama, because they’re trying to scare voters by implying some nonexistant connection to Islam. Confront them on it and you’ll get feigned confusion—“It’s not racism, we’re just using his middle name. What’s wrong with using his middle name?” Well, when’s the last time we heard about John Sidney McCain III? Or Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton? Or Willard Mitt Romney? Or Michael Dale Huckabee? This line of attack only works because Obama’s an African-American; if he were a white guy with a funny name, this particular smear would have be impossible to pull off.

And don’t even get me started on the immigration debate, where right-wing opinion leaders regularly transgress (and then some) into undeniably racist territory.

Like this:

See, we don't live in Africa where people settle arguments with machetes. We live in a country where we settle it with arguments… There's multiculturalism for you. There's immigration for you. There's the new America for you. Bring them in by the millions. Bring in 10 million more from Africa. Bring them in with AIDS. Show how multicultural you are. They can't reason, but bring them in with a machete in their head.

And this:

In discussing recent riots in Paris suburbs with guest Steve Emerson, Glenn Beck likened the rioting there to the purported situation in the American Southwest, where "[y]ou've got people coming here that have no intention of being Americans. They say, you know, 'Hey, this is our land. We deserve it back.'"

And this:

On Hannity & Colmes, Buchanan asserted: "[t]he American majority is not reproducing itself. ... Forty-five million of its young have been destroyed in the womb since Roe v. Wade, as Asian, African, and Latin American children come to inherit the estate…[y]ou've got a wholesale invasion, the greatest invasion in human history, coming across your southern border, changing the composition and character of your country….”

And these guys aren’t fringe elements of the right wing—Michael Savage is the third highest-ranking radio personality in the country, with an audience of over 10 million listeners. Glenn Beck has a primetime television show on CNN Headline News. Pat Buchanan ran for the GOP Presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, and was an advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

Getting back to the initial point of this post, nobody—Julian Bond included—is saying that every Republican is some kind of bigoted Nazi. To say or imply so is to take his words completely out of context. But at the core of his over-the-top, sensationalistic rhetoric lies a small, hard kernel of truth—that the Republican Party has, does, and will continue to benefit from old-fashioned racial bigotry. If the GOP doesn’t like this, perhaps they should aim their criticism toward the racist elements in their own party instead of shooting the messenger.

The fact that Bond is loudly and unapologetically willing to point out this inconvenient truth is what angers the Republicans the most, and it’s exactly why he’ll make an excellent commencement speaker. Who better to teach us about the real world than a man unafraid to speak the truth, even if it happens to offend some of the audience he’s speaking to?

CALL TO ACTION: Sign the petition in support of Bond's selection, and then make sure you get your friends to sign as well.

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