Monthly Archive for August, 2010

Civil Rights Roundup: Glenn Beck Edition

Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial got a lot of attention over the weekend:

Glenn Beck to “Reclaim” Civil Rights (Movement)

There is little to be said that has not been said already about Glenn Beck’s Tea Party rally, to take place Saturday in Washington at the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on its 47th anniversary. Tens of thousands will flock there from the parts of the country that received the most government dollars to rage against big government. Sarah Palin is headlining, and the National Rifle Association will make a strong showing. “We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, dammit, we will reclaim the civil rights moment,” said Beck in May (quoted in this CNN piece by Will Bunch). “We will take that movement — because we were the people who did it in the first place.” The civil rights movement, it seems, has been coopted by people like African Americans, gay people, and women. They’ve had their turn.

Of course, this so-called reclaiming, in addition to being a publicity stunt that will keep Beck and Palin in the spotlight, is a transparently dishonest manipulation of the civil rights movement’s goals and accomplishments, the very effort to contain and coopt the movement that Jacquelyn Hall warned us about in her 2005 article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” (the article which inspired this scholarly collaboration). As Hall wrote, so-called “color blind conservatives” thought it was up to them to restore the original purpose of civil rights laws, which was to prevent isolated acts of wrongdoing against individuals”–in Beck’s case aggrieved whites–“rather than, as many civil rights activists and legal experts claim, to redress present, institutionalized manifestations of historical injustices against blacks as a group.”

Beck’s basic civil rights narrative seems to run like this: There were instances of racism in the past. We regret them, but they’re over, and today’s efforts at addressing questions of racism and poverty amount to “reparations” paid to minorities by whites innocent of personal wrong doing. The success of this narrative lies not only in the profound ignorance of its believers and the venal agenda of its peddlers; not only in racial antipathies but also in the schism between understandings of economic justice and racial justice. As long as lower-class whites feel angry and powerless and are able to blame black people rather than, say, the very rich (for example, Glenn Beck, Inc., made $32 million last year), it will never be necessary to begin the kind of economic restructuring that Martin Luther King hoped would alleviate the poverty of working class blacks, whites, Latinos, and others. As long as lower-class whites privilege their rights as individuals (say to own a machine gun) over their rights as a group (to unionize, or to receive fair pay for their labor), the pressure for economic restructuring only simmers, and never boils over.

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Event: The Battle against Poverty

On August 31, if you’re near UNC campus, check out the remarkable exhibit The Poor Among Us: Photography of Poverty in North Carolina and join a program (here’s the flier in PDF) led by James Leloudis and Robert Korstad, authors of the new history of the North Carolina Fund, To Right These Wrongs.

“Scant” Progress on Civil Rights Cold Cases?

We’ve blogged before about civil rights cold cases, those instances of civil rights movement-era violence that were ignored or covered up at the time and, we thought, being exhumed and pursued by federal agents today. It looked like the FBI was determined to seek out criminals, even decades after their crimes–Alberto Gonzales, a totally undistinguished attorney general, showed some spine when he told those who might have escaped justice, ““You have not gotten away with anything. We are still on your trail.” Then comes this distressing news from the New York Times: little progress is being made.

The Children of Undocumented Immigrants Speak Out

And they’re speaking out against the bizarre proposal to amend the Constitution to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States. James Ayana, the son of undocumented Mexican immigrants (and Regents Professor at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples), Gabriel Chin, the son of a Chinese immigrant who entered the United States under false pretenses when law banned immigration from China (and Chester H. Smith Professor of Law at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law, and Paul Finkelman, whose Polish grandfather snuck into the US via Canada (and who is President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Government Law Center) write at the Huffington Post that the suggestion is un-American and nonsensical.

In fact, denying citizenship seems very American indeed–not only in light of the restrictions that made the authors’ parents and grandparents undocumented entry into the country, or the notorious Dred Scott case the authors note, but also because of the groundswell of contemporary anger about so-called illegal aliens. More persuasive is the argument that efforts to exclude based on race (and yes, if the Constitution were changed in this way the effect would be, basically, to deny citizenship to Hispanic kids) rarely work as intended and we usually regret them later.

It’s likely that this whole thing will blow over, as will the effort to deep-six the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” which is of course neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque (the AP has finally told its reporters to stop calling it that). The election cycle will reboot and we will return to old canards about taxes, instead of the race-and-religion-baiting that brings angry voters to the polls. We must hope that this waning will clear space for the neo-Know Nothing movement to abate just as its ideological forebears did in the 1850s, fading into obscurity as its members squawked about the dangers of German immigrants.

The difference may be, though, that while the Know Nothings split over slavery, today’s Know Nothings appear firmly united on the race question–they’re hostile to African Americans, angry about Latino immigration, and suspicious of people from the Middle East. The Tea Party (party? movement?) has pushed back on accusations of racism, but it’s a largely white movement obsessed with losing control overly formerly all-white institutions, like the White House.

It is bizarre, though, that their response in this case is the further bureaucratization of already-arcane immigration law (see this example: an Oregon teen who entered the US illegally as a toddler and was adopted by Americans faced deportation), letting evil government pencil-pushers, or the ubiquitous judicial activists we hear so much about, rather than a Constitutional Amendment that has for a long time stood at the center of American self-definition, decide who’s in and who’s out. As Finkelman, Ayana, and Chin write, the simple principle at the core of the Amendment “limited the risk of tragic mistakes.” And with things where they are today, when we seem awash in tragic mistakes, that seems about as much as we can hope for.

Essay Competition in Honor of Julius Chambers

The UNC School of Law is holding an essay competition in honor of the pioneering social justice advocate Julius Chambers, who has led the Center for Civil Rights for many years. If you’re a law student in North Carolina, you’re eligible. Take a look at the announcement here: Law Student Writing Competition Call for Papers

“Freedom”

From the Southern Oral History Program’s Gulf Coast researcher, Andy Horowitz, a brief statement on the impact of the BP Oil Spill.

Freedom from Southern Oral History Program on Vimeo.

Blogging “Service” at the UNC Press

UNC Press kicked off a blog series last week considering SERVICE, the first of a series of murals on UNC’s campus that will commemorate the contributions of African Americans and Native Americans to the state. The first installment is complete, and seems to be attracting more positive attention than the university’s last attempt to commemorate African American contributions to campus: the controversial memorial to the slaves who helped construct it.

The first panel of SERVICE, by muralist Colin Quashie, includes an image of Harvey Beech, the first African American to graduate from UNC's law school. Photo from the School of Government.

They’ll be blogging weekly on the mural, panel by panel. Get started here and tune in on Tuesdays for more.