Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sops Of All Sorts

House "Apologizes" For Slavery and Segregation -- But Does This Help?

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives issued an apology to African Americans for slavery and segregation, and no one among them asked that individual members be required to state their individual vote for the record (a "roll call" vote).

Personally, I doubt that any Representative would have refused to sign on to the apology by name, but maybe I'm wrong. Considering what else they do, one could easily see a Republican claiming that the House shouldn't issue the apology based on the argument that slavery and segregation weren't the federal government's fault. And yes, I do think it helps the Republicans to not have to submit to a voice-vote: The Republicans' politics is a difficult double-game that requires them to send periodic subtle messages to their base that they are indeed racist (Remember how politicians like John McCain, Dick Cheney and Strom Thurmond resisted reforms like measures designed to discourage South African apartheid, making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, keeping mostly-black Washington D.C. from being represented in Congress, and ending segregation? Remember how many other Republicans kept using sleazy campaign tactics to keep black voters away from the polls?) while at the same time trying to look populist enough so that ignorant voters who don't really follow the news and want to believe that the Republicans really aren't that racist will be able to fool themselves into believing they aren't, and thereby will not oppose the Republicans too vocally (won't call them racists / Nazis, etc.), or will even vote for the Republicans. Examples of things Republicans do to make themselves or their ideology look populist to the point of being racially / ethinically inclusive are things like falsely claiming that communist Martin Luther King Jr. was actually a Republican, Karl Rove rapping, and drawing attention to the fact-- which is meaningless today, since times have changed and the parties have switched a lot of their beliefs around-- that over 100 years ago the Republican party was the party of Abraham Lincoln. Not being forced to vote individually and overtly for this allows the individual Republicans to still look racist in the eyes of their core constituents who might become confused by it if they heard their Representative voted in favor of it.

In these times when one has to look skeptically at everything, one has to ask about the timing of this, too-- of course one should ask why this "apology" didn't come sooner. And then there is the question of whether it might help or hurt the Democrats in the coming Presidential election. One amazing thing about Obama's appeal is that it has demonstrated that, contrary to a lot of even committed liberal Democrats' expectations, there are things that can get all our black supporters out there a lot more interested in politics and in giving donations to campaign funds like never before (namely, a black presidential candidate like Barack Obama). Obviously, all the blacks who are actively supporting Obama feel there is a need for them to participate in this way (which is what you want of your constituents and supporters whenever you're trying to win an election). And from the point of view of someone who opposes racism of all kinds, it would definitely be disturbing to contemplate that we are about to possibly elect the first black American President, yet Congress has never formerly apologized for slavery and segregation. So if you were black and thought that there were still a lot of things that need to be set right in our country, namely perhaps by a black President, wouldn't it tend to cast some doubt on that, to take some fuel out of your fire, if the House easily agrees to "apologize" for slavery and segregation? It makes you less likely to feel you have to contribute and go out and vote-- it makes you feel like maybe there isn't a real problem.

And then you have to consider what, beyond affecting the image of Congress and how racist the country and government appear, the "apology" really does: certainly, it might be satisfactory if you're one of those black people who can believe that all the nation really owes black people is an apology! To the rest of us, it's a bunch of words, possibly as meaningless as those words from the playground that weren't quite "sticks and stones," and like most sweet or nasty words-- that are meaningful mostly in terms of their affect on the audience only-- it has to be looked at dispassionately and carefully examined to determine the speaker's motives. After all, lots over people who supposedly took part in that "apology" will tell you any other day of the week that they don't believe in affirmative action at all!! Yet many racial minorities are still encountering a glass ceiling in the workplace and vote disfranchisement by illegal means, or live in high-crime ghetto-slums.

One could interpret not-apologizing as an oversight that called for clearing up, since it would be embarrassing if we elected Barack but didn't do it, but all I'm saying is (1) In these times when so much in the media and the government is obviously extremely corrupt, and Democrats are maneuvered into making themselves look bad or somehow often only giving token resistance to Republican moves in our federal government, and with a President who is about to be elected on an unprecedented wave of black support (and especially at a time when this candidate's popular support is holding fast, and the McCain campaign is probably feeling desperate to try something that will make him lose a little steam), it's easy to see how this could have been a conservative-born measure, and (2) as always, these merely for-show actions are completely inadequate when minorities and African Americans in particular still face so many problems that need to be solved by and are appropriate to be solved by legislation not apologies. Blacks should have got some kind of reparations, and this apology should re-focus the discussion on that, not dissuade us from it.