Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Civil Rights or a Silly Fight?

Since President's Obama’s first inauguration in 2008, the Black Intelligentsia, media, and notable civil rights leaders have been tripping all over themselves to embrace a GLTB agenda – still widely reviled in mainstream African American churches if not larger community - as a bona fide civil rights issue. This position is keeping with the progressive black community’s most destructive impulses born in the ante-bellum south of a visceral desire to assimilate, which runs against an inherently traditionally conservative worldview for good reason.

Beyond that is a simple issue of loyalty. Gays and Lesbians stood with the Civil Rights movement during its heyday in the 50s and 60s. Problem is these high profile Gays were inevitably Negro; notably James "Jimmy" Baldwin, Bayard Rustin to name the two most prominent. Nowhere to be found were any White or Jewish Gay or Lesbian activists of note during a tumultuous 1960s. I would challenge the Black intelligentsia, media, or civil rights establishment to name one single one.

The African American community is confronted with endemic pathologies that continue to hinder upward mobility, which has always been driven by higher education. One of the most pernicious is the collateral consequences of criminal history records; an ugly remnant of "Jim Crow," and the single most significant cause of double digit unemployment in the African American community. During "Jim Crow" it was employed mainly to disenfranchise Black voters from exercising their franchise.

The faces of racism like every other social ill transforms over time. Knowing that full frontal racism of the sort evident during the 50s and 60s would no longer be tolerated by not only the African American community but by other progressive, sympathetic constituencies instinctively understanding they would be inevitably targeted next, White ethnics who overwhelmingly represented law enforcement flagrantly criminalized Black youth with serious felony charges for often forgiven offenses leading to convictions, jail or prison time, and invariably an indelible criminal history record, which plagued them throughout their lives as was the intent.

Not one of the marquee academicians, media darlings, or newly sleek, but still well fed civil rights leaders championing the rights of men being able to marry men, or women being able to marry women, have paid any more than lip service to this extremely serious problem in the Black community. Show after show virtually nothing is said, but every other show contains a segment devoted to championing the cause of “marriage equality,” which used to be wedge issue that had politicians on the right and left heading for the hills, but has now become de rigueur.

The collateral consequences of criminal history records and felon disenfranchisement is part of race law, moreover. The disenfranchisement laws of several of the former Confederate states in particular bear the clear imprint of a purpose to maintain white supremacy. A remarkable example is the candid decision of a unanimous Mississippi Supreme Court which, in Ratliff v. Beale, explained the origins of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, which is still in force today:

“Our unhappy state had passed in rapid succession from civil war through a period of military occupancy, followed by another, in which the control of public affairs had passed to a recently enfranchised race, unfitted by educational experience for the responsibility thrust upon it. This was succeeded by a semimilitary, semicivil uprising, under which the white race, inferior in number, but superior in spirit, in governmental instinct, and in intelligence, was restored to power.”
To cement its power, the dominant group structured the constitution to ensure permanent white supremacy: “Within the  field of permissible action under the limitations imposed by the federal constitution, the convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race.”This included employment of felon disenfranchisement: Because the state constitution could not discriminate against African-Americans directly, “the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone. . . . Burglary, theft, arson, and obtaining money under false pretenses were declared to be disqualifications, while robbery and murder and other crimes . . . were not.”

President William Clinton, a white Southern male, contributed to the issue not only with his now universally assailed Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which provided state and municipal governments with $30 billion to add 100,000 new police officers, to build more prisons, and to employ more prison guards, as well as funding for crime prevention programs. After President Clinton interrupted his campaign to return to his home state of Arkansas to oversee the execution of mentally retarded death row inmate Ricky Ray Rector, he also implemented reform to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which governs what information can be disseminated by a “credit reporting agency.”

CRAs are also in the business of providing criminal history information through their not-so-cleverly named subsidiaries. So, when Clinton changed a little known provision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act on the dissemination of criminal history records from 7 years to indefinite disclosure, it had a clear, disproportionate and practically devastating effect on the African American community – especially in the wake of the heightened security resulting from 9/11. 

Given the state of the economy, it is difficult to fathom why these leaders are pushing this agenda just now. How is a man being able to affirm his love for another man through civil marriage going to advance a black agenda… or even have anything to do with it? Balwin and Rustin were openly gay in an era that abhorred “sissies.” It did little to diminish their effectiveness as activists. Prioritization suggests that double digit employment, single parent households, widespread criminality, incarceration, easily accessible criminal history records, and substance abuse requires a concerted effort to address these ills. We ought to leave the low hanging fruit for others to pick.