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Liberal double standards on race

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 17, 2003

When the Trent Lott controversy exploded onto the newspapers and weblogs back in December, many liberals claimed that the Republican Party's racial demons were bigger than just one man. Republicans and conservatives, the argument went, have won votes by exploiting racial animus, particularly in the South.

Some go so far as to suggest that Republicans are explicitly racist, as when the NAACP ran an advertisement that implied George W. Bush tolerated the lynching of James Byrd or when Al Gore suggested that strict constructionist judges would return us to the days of blacks being considered three-fifths of a person under the Constitution. Others, like liberal commentator Joshua Micah Marshall, argue instead that the GOP "as a whole benefits from the use of racism or race-tinged wedge issues in certain parts of the country." Both subsets of this argument are supported with the usual litany including Lott, Willie Horton and Bob Jones.

Now, this is a viewpoint that on its own terms is supported by some suspect underlying assumptions. For example, one can argue that Republican ascendancy in the South has more to do with the Bible Belt supporting the social conservatism of the Christian right than with race; moreover, to the extent that the GOP has absorbed former Dixiecrats, it has also generally moved them away from public support of racist policies. But it is also important to note that liberals impose standards on conservatives and Republicans that they do not themselves meet.

Case in point is the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Estrada is a successful lawyer who served as assistant U.S. attorney in New York under Rudolph Giuliani, clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and in the office of the solicitor general in the Clinton administration. He has the support of a bipartisan majority of senators and if confirmed many believe it will only be a matter of time before President Bush nominates him to become the first Hispanic American on the U.S. Supreme Court. But a majority of Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD), are blocking the president's choice.

Of course, Daschle and his colleagues motivated by politics and their liberal judicial litmus tests, not ethnicity. They are concerned by Estrada's work for Justice Kennedy and membership in the conservative Federalist Society. But if Republicans filibustered the nomination of a qualified Hispanic candidate named by a Democratic president, they would surely be rapped for insensitivity at best and outright bigotry at worst.

When John Aschroft opposed the nomination of African-American Judge Ronnie White to a federal judgeship – one of only two black Clinton judicial nominees he opposed during his entire Senate tenure – critics portrayed his opposition as essentially racist in nature. There were those who accused Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) of playing to racist sentiments when he included criticism of Marion Barry in his 1994 stump speech. Republican investigations of illicit 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign contributions from Chinese nationals and the Cox committee investigation of possible security breaches between the United States and China were said to be motivated by prejudice against Asian-Americans; Republican-supported initiatives to halt welfare payments to noncitizens, particularly illegal immigrants, were said to be motivated by animus against Hispanics.

Yet the Democrats can prevent a floor vote on the nomination of a Hispanic judicial nominee without the same critics objecting that this could be perceived as bias against Hispanics. Ted Kennedy can give speeches inveighing against Gerald Reynolds, now an assistant secretary of education running the department's Office of Civil Rights, or Clarence Thomas, without anyone questioning his commitment to racial equality.

Over two years ago when Linda Chavez's nomination to become secretary of labor was aborted due to revelations that she had housed – and possibly employed – an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, I wrote an article asking why this was not an unacceptable manifestation of racism and xenophobia on the part of Chavez's critics. After all, illegal immigration was deemed an unacceptable racist wedge issue when Pete Wilson brought it up in the 1990s. Those who favor reduced immigration also must constantly deal with the allegation that they are motivated by anti-Hispanic prejudice. Yet it was perfectly acceptable for Democrats to sink a Hispanic nominee by bringing up an issue involving an illegal immigrant. Just to be clear, I do not – and did not at the time – consider bringing up the issue of whether Chavez complied with U.S. immigration laws to be an illegitimate issue. But I do believe that if the party affiliations of those involved had been different – if a Democratic administration had nominated a liberal Hispanic who was opposed by Republicans for housing or employing an illegal immigrant – the charges of insensitivity, racism and xenophobia would have been leveled.

Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., center, flanked by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, left, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of S.D., gestures during a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, February 5 o discuss the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada
Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., center, flanked by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, left, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of S.D., gestures during a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, February 5 o discuss the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada

Liberals and Democrats do not just get a free pass to oppose minorities nominated by Republicans – they are allowed to do so in terms that would certainly, and fairly, invite criticism if they had been used in similar circumstances by the right. For example, Estrada has been attacked for being insufficiently Hispanic. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus intoned, "Being Hispanic for us means more than just having a surname." Even though Estrada immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras and learned English as his second language, Angelo Falcon of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund dismissed his biography as "concocted, invented Latino imagery." (Columnist Deroy Murdock quipped that "Estrada's critics would not be mollified even if he swapped his black robes for a serape and wore a sombrero on the bench.")

Purveyors of racial groupthink also took issue with Chavez's authenticity, due to such grievous offenses as being a conservative Republican, opposing bilingual education and being married to a Jewish man. Clarence Thomas has endured even more vicious attacks and referring to him as some kind of "Uncle Tom" is par for the course. More recently, there have been questions about the blackness of Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice. Singer Harry Belafonte referred to them as "house slaves."

These statements may not represent anything approaching majority opinion among liberals. But if we are to judge liberals and Democrats by the same standards many of them would impose on conservatives and Republicans, this is not enough. It is a fact that the Democratic Party as a whole benefits from this kind of racial resentment and institutionally does little to discourage it. Such leading Democrats as Bill Clinton and Al Gore employ divisive rhetoric as a tool for securing minority voter turnout. Daschle did not walk out on an anti-Estrada press conference when Mendendez argued the nominee was somehow ethnically inauthentic.

When it comes to exploiting race for political purposes, sadly neither political party is pure. However, Democrats frequently claim that such tactics are exclusively the Republicans' preserve while they alone occupy the moral high ground. This is bunk. Even a cursory glance shows that the standards Democrats try to hold Republicans to is not one they themselves have reached.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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