Martin Luther King
28
Jan

John McCain’s complicated history with race

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mccain_obit_061114gn_lead

Photo credit Greg Nash

 

The U.S. Senate has lost one of its lions, and, predictably, the coverage of John McCain’s death ranges from hagiography to screed to everything in between.

That middle ground is most interesting. For those who aren’t familiar with McCain’s long Senate career, they’re surely aware of his 2008 Presidential run against Barack Obama. And a now-iconic moment involves pushing back against a racist woman who called Obama an Arab town hall.

McCain grabbed the microphone from her, cutting her off. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

He could have added, “and even if he were an Arab, or a Muslim, he’s still an honorable American, because Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans can be decent family men too.” But that’s a bit of a quibble. Especially considering how toxic the political environment has become in the past decade. And considering we have an open racist in the White House now.

You may remember the Reverend Wright controversy in the 2008 campaign. That’s where video of Obama’s longtime reverend surfaced with him saying “God damn America,” but lacked the context of why Wright said this in a sermon (Wright was denouncing America’s foreign intervention and its original sin, slavery). Campaign watchers point out that in 2008 McCain declared it verboten to mention Reverend Wright or anything about Obama’s religion. He wouldn’t play the religion card. He wouldn’t play the race card. It’s the decent and statesman-like stance to take, but can you imagine that happening in a Presidential campaign today?

But McCain had other, more complex – and some might say troubling – conflicts regarding race. During his first run for the Presidency, in 2000, the Confederate flag was a controversial issue in the pivotal South Carolina primary. At first, McCain said that the flag was a symbol of “racism and slavery,” but it up to each state to determine whether to display it or not. His rival, George W. Bush, had essentially the same position, without excoriating it as a symbol of slavery and racism. McCain lost that primary to Bush, for a variety of reasons, including a smear campaign against him suggesting he had fathered a bi-racial child. After the race, he went back to South Carolina and clarified his position and apologized for putting political interests ahead of candor.

“I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” the Arizona senator who named his campaign bus “The Straight Talk Express,” said at a luncheon in the state’s capital city. “So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”

His Confederate forefathers in Mississippi, McCain said, “fought on the wrong side of American history.”“I don’t believe their service, however distinguished, needs to be commemorated in a way that offends, that deeply hurts, people whose ancestors were once denied their freedom by my ancestors,” he continued.

He didn’t have to make that statement. It didn’t gain him anything. But it shows that, when political considerations are put aside, McCain was more likely to be progressive in terms of race.

But he was a Republican, running in a state with a very conservative base (Arizona). So, sometimes politics won. Like in the 2010 primary, where he was facing a challenger from the right. He responded by releasing a TV ad blaming immigrants for home invasions and saying the U.S. needed to “complete the danged fence” on the border.

This is the same man who co-authored – with another Senate lion, the liberal Ted Kennedy – a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005. The bill failed, scuttled by hardliners in his own party. But it remains the benchmark for immigration reform efforts, still.

We could assume that the real McCain was the bipartisan reformer he showed in the immigration bill efforts, rather than the “complete the danged fence” angry old man of 2010, at least when he didn’t have to face his base.

In 1983, as a new Congressman, he voted against making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. Years later he said he changed his position, he evolved.

So, a complicated history. But he was willing and able to admit when he was wrong. This is something that stands in stark contrast to his party today, and the leader of his party.

06
Jan

Racism’s New Normal

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RFK

Robert Kennedy, building a Rainbow Coalition

Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, minutes after he was projected to win the California primary and was – maybe, we’ll never know – on a path to securing the Democratic nomination for President. It’s just anecdotal, but in my experience, people who were alive and aware at that time, and who were Kennedy supporters, still tear up when they speak of him. Even more so than the reaction of those who remember where they were when his brother, JFK, was killed. They believe that hope was killed on that June day in 1968.

There’s an excellent documentary on Netflix right now, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” which chronicles RFK’s awakening to racial issues of the 60s. The film makes note that he started off that decade as his brother’s Attorney General, wiretapping Martin Luther King and being highly resistant to making overtures to communities of color. Near the end of the decade, and his life, he strongly embraced Black and Latino communities. We can credit Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders for his change of heart. But whether it was political calculation or a sincere evolution – many historians come down on the latter – he was the first politician running for President to not ignore communities of color or at least pay them lip service. Historian Richard Kahlenberg superb has written an excellent paper, “The Inclusive Populism of Robert Kennedy,” making the case that RFK was building an alliance of working-class whites and minorities, a coalition that just might have won.

Fast forward to 2018. Where are working class whites now? Oh yes. They helped propel Donald “Mexicans are rapists” Trump to the White House.

Remember when Presidents of both parties, at least in words, tried to appeal to our better natures? What happened? Was a half-century of progress wiped out with one divisive campaign and one highly divisive and bigoted President. Yes, some of it, at least, we can hope, temporarily.

A recent Washington Post editorial stated that everything we’ve witnessed recently, from the ugly Roseanne tweet that ended her show, to the rise in open racists running for office, are predictable and predicted byproducts of the hate spewed from the resident of the Oval Office:

Can I prove that Trump’s hate-mongering is infecting the culture? No, I can’t, but it stands to reason — and there are signs that it is. This year, there are at least 10 white supremacists running for office — and that doesn’t count failed West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship, who excoriated “China people,” and failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams, who campaigned in a “deportation bus.” Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center report that the number of hate crimes and hate groups has increased since Trump became president.

I can’t prove that the rise in overt racism is a direct result of Trump’s hate-mongering. But if not that, then what has precipitated it’s ugly rise?

I think reasonable people can agree on a few things. Racism never really left the U.S. It’s just that many racists and bigots were, for a while, afraid to say what they really thought. During that shining illusory interregnum in blatant racism –how quaint the term post-racial society sounds – people with racial animus – as opposed to racial bias, which, sadly affects a much wider swath of America – became resentful about feeling like they had to moderate their views. What was happening was, they were keeping the views out of sight, but within their bubbles, they were free to not only say what they wanted, their sense of white victimization grew. Hey, bubbles reinforce beliefs, don’t they?

Speaking of bubbles, we all live in our own. Here in southern California, a melting pot, salad, whatever metaphor you want to use, of every race, bigotry is generally not cool. Because I live in this region, which is relatively free of overt racism – oh it’s likely there, but tamped down by social norms – I’m left astounded and a little depressed every time I see support for Muslim travel bans, racist rallies, and polls where whites say they’re victims of discrimination.

And now, here we are, in a time where racism, for the time being in at least in a too-large part of the population, is normalized again. We’re a much more diverse nation than 50 years ago, and on the verge of, as you’re probably aware, of becoming a nation where whites are not the majority. And yet, we have an occupant in the White House who has, time and again, shown more racial animus than any major candidate for President since George Wallace, a man who doesn’t use coded dog-whistle terms to speak to racists, but rather, a bullhorn. It should be noted that George “Segregation Forever” Wallace didn’t come close to winning any of his Presidential races. Pendulums swing back and forth. We may be seeing a certain percentage of the white population unleashed and angry that they’ve had to keep their racism under wraps for so long. But it’s pretty clear that Trump gave them the freedom to unwrap it.

Still, America is changing, and it will not become whiter. I fear that America will always have a problem with race. But with more time, and with leaders who, at the very least, accept that this is a multicultural nation, we’ll keep making progress.

While I’m on the RFK-Trump comparison, one more thing. Charles Blow, opinion columnist in the New York Times, has an excellent piece today outlining what he sees as the darkness in Trump, and concludes:

He always disguises his hatred, often as a veneration and defense of his base, the flag, law enforcement or the military. He hijacks their valor to advance his personal hatred.

So I remember that. I center that. I hear “I want to hate” every time I hear him speak. And I draw strength from the fact that I’m not fighting for or against a political party; I’m fighting hatred itself, as personified by the man who occupies the presidency. That is my spine stiffener.

Surely RFK had his detractors. But I seriously doubt anyone made the case fifty years ago that he was a “hater.” Maybe that’s why he’s still beloved by so many who were adults at the time. And I’m trying not to be mean here, but I can’ help wondering how many people get weepy at the memory of Gov. George Wallace, who, to be fair, recanted on much of his racial animosity at the end of his life. And I can’t help wondering, after all the ways Trump has taken us backward into bigotry, after he’s gone, how many people will choke up at the memory of him?