Thursday, September 20, 2018

Maya Angelou's Buddy

Fifty-five years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

If a little short of revolutionary, those words spoken were bold at the time and had Martin Luther King Jr. survived, he probably would have been an activist for affordable housing, affirmative action, police and criminal justice reform, and other measures meant to tear down the walls of racial (and economic) disparity.

Nonetheless, he slammed the notion of judging individuals "by the color of their skin." Departing from that principle is, at a minimum, risky.

The late Maya Angelou is accurately celebrated as having been a great poet.  Were she not that, she probably could not in August, 1991 have written

We need to haunt the halls of history and listen anew to the ancestors' wisdom. We must ask questions and find answers that will help us to avoid falling into the merciless maw of history. How were our forebears able to support their weakest when they themselves were at their weakest? How were they able to surround the errant leader and prevent him from being co-opted by forces that would destroy him and them? How were they, lonely, bought separately, sold apart, able to conceive of the deep, ponderous wisdom found in "walk together, children . . . don't you get weary."

This was a portion of a piece which then appeared in The Baltimore Sun, which also included

The black youngsters of today must ask black leaders: If you can't make an effort to reach, reconstruct and save a black man who has graduated from Yale, how can you reach down here in this drug-filled, hate-filled cesspool where I live and save us?

I am supporting Clarence Thomas' nomination, and I am neither naive enough nor hopeful enough to imagine that in publicly supporting him I will give the younger generation a pretty picture of unity, but rather I can show them that I and they come from a people who had the courage to be when being was dangerous, who had the courage to dare when daring was dangerous -- and most important, had the courage to hope.

"I am supporting Clarence Thomas' nomination," she writes in rhythmic prose nevertheless unable to obscure the reality that she was taking a position because of Judge Thomas' race.

The damage- arguably especially to blacks- done by Thomas on the Supreme Court has been broad and deep. He was one of the five votes to emasculate the Voting Rights Act, whose central provision, the Brennan Center has explained, is

Section 4 – commonly referred to as the coverage formula. The coverage formula determined which jurisdictions had to “preclear” changes to their election rules with the federal government before implementing them, based on their history of race-based voter discrimination. Preclearance was massively successful at improving voting access in covered jurisdictions.

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reasoned that the coverage formula was out of date – despite Congress’s determination that it was still needed. The ruling rendered the Section 5 preclearance system effectively inoperable.

The decision in Shelby County opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States. The effects were immediate. Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.

The Atlantic's C. Vann Newkirk II has cited two cases which advanced the cause of voter suppression encouraged by Shelby. In Husted v. A.Phillip Randolph Institute, "the Court essentially gave its seal of approval to Ohio’s system of voter purges, in which the state uses a failure to vote as a trigger to begin the multistep process of taking people off voter rolls." A few weeks later, Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion in which a Texas racial gerrymandering scheme was upheld in logic reminiscent of Shelby.

Aside from reasoning and impact, these three decisions had two things in common: they were all decided by one vote- and Justice Thomas voted in the majority.

On a positive note, Maya Angelous at least lived long enough to see great power give to the  man whom she wrote "has been nearly suffocated by the acrid odor of racial discrimination." Not altogether unpredictably, once he was given that power he proceeded to lend his support to continued racial discrimination. Content of his character be damned, she wanted an African-American on the court, and her wish was fulfilled. He will be there every day until he dies, helping to fulfill the wishes of bigots comfortable with decisions made on the basis of race.

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