So yeah, the Heritage Foundation hosts a “Jesse Helms” lecture series…

Senator Cruz got in trouble for praising Jesse Helms the other day. In particular, Cruz is quoted as saying: “We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” This is a ridiculous thing to say. But the most ridiculous and indecent aspect of this story isn’t anything Cruz actually said. It’s the simple fact that the Heritage Foundation chooses to host such a lecture series in the first place.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of the many, many examples of Helms’ awfulness over his long career. My personal favorite was Helms’ charming habit of referring to African-American men, out of earshot, with the uniform moniker, “Fred.”. But wow, there’s much choose from, ranging from his opposition to civil rights to his disparagement of immigrants  to his concerted opposition at the worst possible moment to effective measures against HIV/AIDS.

The normally mild-mannered David Broder nailed it on Helms’ retirement:

What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired…. [T]he squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.

My own paper, The Washington Post, carried three stories about Helms’s departure. In their 54 paragraphs, exactly two — the 10th paragraph of one story and the last paragraph of another — alluded to the subject of race.

Rather than say more, I simply offer this inspired bit of ACT-UP guerilla theatre in the video below. If Republicans wish to establish a decent, inclusive party, some house cleaning is in order.

Breaking: The Butler was not unfair to Ronald Reagan on race

Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner wrote a strange Washington Post op-ed yesterday decrying the inspiro-pic “The Butler,” for its allegedly unkind portrayal of Ronald Reagan’s racial views. I was a little surprised by their complaints, since the Butler is quite kind to Reagan on a personal level.

These authors believe that the film “perpetuates an ahistorical caricature of Reagan as racially insensitive,” largely due his policy of constructive engagement regarding South Africa. Unfortunately, the historical record indicates that Reagan was….really, really racially insensitive. He received fourteen percent of the African-American vote in 1980. It’s rather surprisingly that he received even that.

Hayward and colleagues note preemptively one episode themselves:

For decades, Reagan’s legacy has been unfairly dogged by claims that his 1980 presidential campaign was marked by the use of code words and symbols that accommodated white racists. Critics point, for instance, to his post-convention appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been killed in nearby Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, and some commentators say Reagan was insensitive to this tragedy when he said, “I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can . . . at the private level.” But the former California governor, a strong believer in federalism, had been talking about states’ rights since the early days of his political career.

Hayward and company don’t explain what’s unfair in the critics’ charges. Reagan’s comments certainly were insensitive, but that hardly covers things. A subtle politician attuned to the symbolic meaning of his statements and actions, Reagan could hardly have missed the general implications of his comments. On the substance, Reagan was standing on one of best spots, within one of the best states, to exemplify why his career-long support for “states’ rights” was always profoundly inadequate.

Yesterday’s op-ed somehow failed to mention that Reagan had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Campaigning in Georgia, Reagan stated that Jefferson Davis was “a hero of mine.” This op-ed also omitted specific mention to his many coded references to race, such as his 1976 references to a “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

I wouldn’t deny or disparage Reagan’s personal kindnesses to individual African-Americans. He was a decent person to those he knew—something “The Butler” depicted well. This doesn’t change the much more important fact that his public record on race was abysmal.

Reagan’s difficulties go beyond various mis-statements, disagreements with civil rights leaders, or policy differences about incremental reforms in South Africa. His basic political strategy was to position himself as Barry Goldwater’s rightful heir in the GOP. Much of Reagan’s real base was among conservative Republicans in the post-1964 southern Republican Party.

I know of no evidence that Reagan himself held invidious racial views, but his limited-government views (like Barry Goldwater’s) were obviously congenial to those who did hold such views. In 1966, Reagan stated: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” Such views carried over into his presidency, for example in his support for segregationist Bob Jones University’s unsuccessful effort to maintain its tax exemption.

Whatever Reagan’s inner racial views or his private behavior towards individual African-Americans, he chose to court what might politely be called race-conservative segments of the American electorate. He and his party prospered politically by making that choice.

Historians and biographers, of all people, should realize that today’s Republican Party can’t diminish or run away from that legacy. It needs to create something more inclusive and better than the party Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan built.

Weekend movie recommendation: Fruitvale Station

Hollywood biopics have become particularly popular in the last few years. Typically, these films focus on the life of élites: in the last two years alone Hollywood has released The Iron Lady, Hitchcock, Jobs, Lincoln, and the forthcoming Diana, to name a few. This week’s movie recommendation is a biopic of a very different kind, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013). While you might have to look around for a cinema near you that’s still showing it, by virtue of its timeliness it seemed appropriate to fill this week’s film recommendation slot.

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 01.30.02In addition to departing from the typical biopic format in choosing to focus on the life of an ordinary person rather than an élite, the scope of the film also departs from convention in limiting itself to one day – the protagonist’s last. It tells the story of Oscar Julius Grant III, who was the victim of an involuntary manslaughter by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer on New Year’s Eve, 2008. It eschews any focus on the life of the offending police officer, and the sparse epilogue that describes subsequent events (like the officer’s trial and sentence) draws attention to the fact that the film is foremost about Grant.

There is no doubt about how the film ends – the first shot of the film is one of the videos recorded from the camera phone of a passenger on the BART train that captures the officer firing the fatal bullet. As with most biopics, the suspense isn’t in where the film is going but rather in how it gets there. This makes the first half of the film a little less engaging than the second half. We follow Grant living out the mundane existence of someone struggling to make ends meet, kicking a drug habit, taking his daughter to school, and flirting with girls at the store. It effectively establishes him as a real person, in whom we invest our sympathies.

As far as I can tell, the film’s release was timed to coincide with the Zimmerman verdict. If this was unintentional, then at the very least, it resonated with the media attention stirred by recent events. However, while both race and the criminal justice system play an important role in the film’s plot, this is emphatically not a film about Race and the Criminal Justice System. One of the police officers brutally picks on black suspects while leaving white suspects alone, but Coogler’s decision not to dwell on whether Grant’s homicide was intentional removes any comparison between Grant and Trayvon Martin. This is a film about the sadness of a life cut short by human folly, not whether the outcome was just.

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 01.29.08I can only assume that Coogler applies a fair bit of dramatic license in telling the story of Grant’s last day. Grant’s daughter plays out the conventional tragic conceit of the protagonist’s family member protesting the father’s departure because of the portent of his demise (Caesar’s Calpurnia comes to mind). The reverse is also present, in which Grant is presented with signs of imminent doom, and yet he presses on, rendering himself complicit in his own fate (Oedipus, anyone?): he witnesses the capricious killing of a dog (in the shadow of a BART station, no less), and symbolically refuses to remove the shirt stained with the deceased dog’s blood; he acquiesces to his mother’s and his girlfriend’s separate insistences, contrary to his own original intention, that he both celebrate New Year’s in the city and that he travel there by BART rather than by car; and the fight that precipitates Grant’s detainment and death is caused when the girl with whom he flirted earlier that day draws the attention of a former convict with beef against him.

Nonetheless, the symbolism and imagery aren’t hackneyed, the direction is crisp, and the acting is up to par. While the film starts slow, it gains momentum. By the end, and indeed overall, the film is deeply engrossing. Go watch Fruitvale, if you can find a cinema nearby that’s still showing it.

I have a snooze

The GOP boycotts the public commemoration of the March on Washington.

Where was the party of Lincoln at the commemoration of the March on Washington and MLK´s great speech?

Former President George H.W. Bush: too poorly to attend (he´s 89)

Former President George W. Bush: recovering from surgery

Former Governor Jeb Bush (invited to stand in for other Bushes): other engagements

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: no reason published (spoke at a special Capitol event  on July 31, the true anniversary, along with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) [Correction from comments: August 28 was the true anniversary; the earlier event was presumably brought forward to fit with Congress´ recess.]

House Speaker John Boehner (invited to speak): other engagements

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (invited to speak): other engagements

Former GOP Presidential candidate Senator John McCain: other engagements

African-American GOP Senator Tim Scott: claimed not to have been invited, then pled other engagements.

The earlier Capitol event provides a figleaf, but where was it on TV? If the GOP were serious about reaching out to black voters, its leaders would have been fighting their way to Obama´s microphone on the Mall with their crutches.

African-Americans will draw their own conclusions. The Democratic Party is not always a reliable or effective ally in politics, but it´s the only one they´ve got.



Fogey-Filled Faculties are a Barrier to Diversity

The main problem with older faculty who hang on too long is that they impede the diversification of the faculty

In today’s economy, is there any worse policy than guaranteeing an employee the same job for 40-plus years, even if he or she meets few of the organization’s needs and costs a lot in the bargain?

Those are the words of Mark Bauerlein, who thinks that tenure locks universities into having too many codgers around who teach subjects that few people care about anymore. For example, where will a university language department find the resources to respond to the rise of China if all its salary dollars are locked up in 75-year old professors who — between frequent naps — teach the few students today who wish to major in French?

This is not an issue we generally face in medical schools, where tenure is rarely granted and means little when it is. Massive salary cuts, even down to a salary of zero, are possible for unproductive tenured faculty in academic medicine (As we say in the business “All that is really tenured is your title”). A concentration of tenured older faculty may however be a significant influence on the fate of a school of arts and sciences, education or the like. But I am worry about that for a reason different than the one Bauerlein cites.

Bauerlein doesn’t convince me that undergraduates are worse off having a course taught to them by, say, a 70-year old professor who could retire but teaches for the love of it, versus, say a stressed out 30-year old assistant professor with two young kids who knows that his upcoming tenure decision will be made based mainly on everything but the quality of his instruction. However, the students and their university may be worse off on the diversity front when the faculty is dominated by Methusalehs.

The critical demographic fact about professors who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s is that in virtually every field, they are overwhelmingly white men. Meanwhile, the current generation of graduate and medical students who will soon be entering the academic job market has a much higher percentage of women and people of color. If you want to diversify your faculty, the time to go fishing is right now while the lake is stocked.

But you can’t bring in these exciting, diverse young people if most of your resources are tied up in old white guys with high salaries. The decision to get rid of the retirement age, whatever its virtues in other respects, was a decision to help older white male professors at the expense of younger women and minority would-be professors.

It may be unfashionable to say this, but the situation is also unfair to young white male would-be professors, whose generation is often expected to bear the entire burden of reducing the over-representation of white men in the academy. That’s a cost that should fall on the old boys who have enjoyed decades of privilege rather than some 27 year old who got his degree in a much more gender and racially balanced world.

On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



Democrats, Republicans, and civil rights: let’s look at the record.

Republicans as champions of civil rights in the ’60s? Not so much.

One of the standard glibertarian/Republican lies (recited frequently by some RBC commenters) is that, in the Civil Rights struggles of the early 1960s, Republicans stood for equality and Democrats stood for racism. They’ve even managed to fool PolitiFact on the first half of the claim, ignoring the little detail that in 1964 the Republicans nominated an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of that year for President. Yes, back then there were still lots of racist Southern Democrats, and some liberal (and a bunch of moderate) Northern Republicans: you know, the same people the Red Team has spent the last thirty years purging from the Republican Party. In the meantime, all the [next generation of] Southern racists moved into the welcoming arms of the GOP, creating today’s lineup.

Even back then, a four-way breakdown (by party and region) shows that non-Confederate Democrats (despite the presence of Robert Byrd) were more supportive of civil rights legislation than non-Confederate Republicans, and that even Confederate Democrats were slightly better, on average, than the small number of Confederate Republicans.

One way to disentangle region from race is to look at state-level legislation. Continue reading “Democrats, Republicans, and civil rights: let’s look at the record.”

Best Intentions– the backstory of Mark’s post

How weird that Coulter picked up on this very old case. Without having clicked on your links, I recognize it as the story of Eddie Perry, who was a scholarship student at Exeter. It seemed to me that Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities relied on the story for its central plot line, although Wolfe took a lot of poetic license with the details. The writer Robert Anson, whose son was then a classmate of Perry’s, found the story shocking and researched it. His book, Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry, is a classic. Meticulously researched, it dropped a bomb that all the New York newspapers failed to turn up and tried to answer the obvious question: how could all these good intentions, from the non-profit scholarship foundations, the public school teachers who nurtured Mr. Perry and got him into Exeter, the staff and students at Exeter themselves– have resulted in such a massive tragedy? Continue reading “Best Intentions– the backstory of Mark’s post”

Doubling Down on White Voters: The California Experience

California’s experience shows that targeting white voters helps a political party in the short run and kills it in the long run

Andrew Sullivan has a helpful round up of the current debate about whether the GOP can attain electoral success in the face of increasing population diversity by “doubling down” on white voters. The experience of California suggests that such a strategy can help a political party in the short term, but only at the cost of crippling it in the long term.

Younger Americans are often surprised to learn that California was a Republican-friendly state for decades. Other than in the 1964 LBJ landslide win over Goldwater, Californians supported a Republican for President every cycle from 1952 through 1988. However, by the early 1990s, the increasing diversity of the state began to alter the political landscape, just as it is doing now nationally.

The debate within the California GOP at the time was eerily similar to that happening within the national Republican Party today. Virtually all Republican leaders conceded that the rise of Latino and Asian-American voters required some response, but what that response should be was the subject of intense disagreement.

California GOP reformers, noting that a Democratic Presidential Candidate (Bill Clinton) had broken the GOP lock on the state in 1992 with strong support from minority voters, argued that the party had to modernize by reaching out to people of color. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46% of the popular vote and that Ross Perot had attracted many conservative white voters, insisted that the Republican party needed to go hard right, including by making race-based appeals to white voters.

The two GOP factions battled each other in the lead-up to the 1994 gubernatorial election and the “double-downers” won. Anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 was the central issue of the contest, and like any Californian I can attest to the venomous, racially-divisive nature of the debate that surrounded it. Republican Pete Wilson publicly embraced the measure at every campaign stop, and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to re-election with strong support from White voters.

In the process, Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters did lasting damage to the California Republican Party from which it has never recovered. In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people, a branding that — fair or not — repulses most minority voters and no small number of white voters as well.

Subsequent Democratic Presidential candidates have not even bothered to campaign in California; why should they? They need only stop by to gather big campaign contributions that would have gone to Republicans in prior eras. Traditional Republicans are neutered in the state legislature and have no chance in the gubernatorial race either. The only Republican Governor since Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, won by packaging himself as a post-partisan figure and following it through by rejecting many of the national GOP’s key positions.

The California lesson for the national GOP? Racially divisive appeals to alienated white voters can work, perhaps especially in a mid-term election. Indeed, doubling down on white voters may well work nationally in 2014. But pursuing such short-term electoral rewards is a route to long-term political oblivion in an increasingly diverse America.