Posted tagged ‘Supreme Court’

On Money, Power, and How John Roberts Forged One More Link In The History Of White Supremacy In America

April 17, 2014

Yesterday  an essay I wrote appeared over at the Atlantic’s joint. (Originally on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, the editors there moved it over to Politics after a bit.)  It’s attracted a fair amount of comment over there, including severe disdain from some folks that I infer are somewhat more right of center than your humble blogger.

In it I argue that the McCutcheon decision eliminating some campaign finance limits shows how White supremacy operates in a post slavery-post-Jim Crow-post-Civil-Rights-era environment:  not by targeting race explicitly, but by constraining the paths on which African Americans could engage and acquire power.

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Here’s a taste:

A drastically shortened version of Coates’s analysis is that white supremacy—and the imposition of white power on African-American bodies and property—have been utterly interwoven through the history of American democracy, wealth and power from the beginnings of European settlement in North America. The role of the exploitation of African-American lives in the construction of American society and polity did not end in 1865. Rather, through the levers of law, lawless violence, and violence under the color of law, black American aspirations to wealth, access to capital, access to political power, a share in the advances of the social safety net and more have all been denied with greater or less efficiency. There has been change—as Coates noted in a conversation he and I had a couple of years ago, in 1860 white Americans could sell children away from their parents, and in 1865 they could not—and that is a real shift. But such beginnings did not mean that justice was being done nor equity experienced.

Once you start seeing American history through the corrective lens created by the generations of scholars and researchers on whose work Coates reports, then it becomes possible—necessary, really—to read current events in a new light. Take, for example, the McCutcheon decision that continued the Roberts Court program of gutting campaign-finance laws.

The conventional—and correct, as far as it goes—view of the outcome, enabling wealthy donors to contribute to as many candidates as they choose, is that this further tilts the political playing field towards the richest among us at the expense of every American voter. See noted analyst Jon Stewart for a succinct presentation of this view.

I then go on to cite a study that analyzed just who belongs to the exclusive club directly affected by McCutcheon — the about 1,200 people who brushed up against the limits in dispute.  After going through the predictable demographics — the group is overwhelmingly white and mostly male, I added this:

People of color are almost entirely absent from the top donor profile, and none more so than members of the community that white Americans enslaved for two centuries:

While more than one-in-six Americans live in a neighborhood that is majority African-American or Hispanic, less than one-in-50 superlimit donors do. More than 90 percent of these elite donors live in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of non- Hispanic white residents than average. African-Americans are especially underrepresented. The median elite donor lives in a neighborhood where the African-American population counts for only 1.4 percent, nine times less than the national rate.

…This is why money isn’t speech. Freedom of speech as a functional element in democratic life assumes that such freedom can be meaningfully deployed. But the unleashing of yet more money into politics allows a very limited class of people to drown out the money “speech” of everyone else—but especially those with a deep, overwhelmingly well documented history of being denied voice and presence in American political life.

That seems to me to be pretty obvious — but what really got me going, and what seems to me the crux of the matter, is that McCutcheon isn’t a stand-alone judgment:

combine…decisions [on campaign finance] with the conclusions of the court on voting rights, and you get a clear view of what the five-justice right-wing majority has done. Controlling access to the ballot has been a classic tool of white supremacy since the end of Reconstruction. It is so once again, as states seizing on the Roberts Court’s Voting Rights Act decision take aim at exactly those tools with which African Americans increased turnout and the proportion of minority voters within the electorate. There’s not even much of an attempt to disguise what’s going on.

Add all this to the Roberts decision to free states from the tyranny of being forced to accept federal funds to provide healthcare to the poor. When John Roberts declared that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion would be optional, the decision sounded colorblind—states could deny succor to their poor of any race— [but] in practice, that is to say in the real world, this decision hits individual African Americans and their communities the hardest, as Coates wrote way back when.

I’d add to that the last step in the syllogism: make money the measure of political speech and inhibit the ability of one group to accumulate not just wages but capital…and that’s a denial of the rights of citizenship just as much as any direct attack on access to the voting booth.

White supremacy as a social reality isn’t (any more) a matter of folks in white hoods or politicians standing around with axe-handles at the ready.  It comes cloaked in elaborately distanced language, through actions that appear on the surface to be aloof from any consideration of race.  Surely campaign finance law would seem to have no connection to civil rights jurisprudence.  Perhaps as a matter of abstract argument, of judicial logic-chopping (and very selective historical memory) it doesn’t.  In the real world, it does.

I’m not arguing that Roberts and his four co-conspirators are racists. I don’t know or care what they feel or how they perceive themselves. The matter is rather, do the actions of the Roberts Court support an ongoing use of power that has a racist outcome?  That question, I think, answers itself.

A nation that can elect Barack Obama is not John Calhoun’s America; it isn’t even Strom Thurmond’s.  It’s ours, and for all the changes I’ve seen in 55 years lived between our two shining seas, it’s one that continues to tell the old story of white-erected obstacles to African Americans seeking to exercise political power.  Again, you can check out the full piece over there.

Image: Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of the Marquesa Elena Grimaldic. 1623.

Hurts Too Much To Laugh; I’m Too Old To Cry

April 6, 2012

This is how one sad story begins:

May the justices please meet my sister-in-law. On Feb. 8, she was a healthy 32-year-old, who was seven and a half months pregnant with her first baby. On Feb. 9, she was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down by a car accident that damaged her spine. Miraculously, the baby, born by emergency C-section, is healthy.

This is what follows that terrible moment:

My brother’s small employer — he is the manager of a metal-fabrication shop — does not offer health insurance, which was too expensive for them to buy on their own. Fortunately, my sister-in-law had enrolled in the Access for Infants and Mothers program, California’s insurance plan for middle-income pregnant women. AIM coverage extends 60 days postpartum and paid for her stay in intensive care and early rehabilitation. But when the 60 days is up next week, the family will fall through the welfare medicine rabbit hole.

And here is what those people will have to deal with for the rest of their lives:

When the AIM coverage expires, my sister-in-law will be covered by Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, because she is disabled and has limited income. But because my brother works, they are subject to cost-sharing: they pay the first $1,100 of her health costs each month. Paying $1,100 leaves them with a monthly income of just 133 percent of the federal poverty level. If my brother makes more money, their share of the cost increases.

They must also meet the Medi-Cal asset test: beyond their house and one vehicle, they can hold $3,150 in total assets, a limit last adjusted in 1989. They cannot save for retirement (retirement plans are not exempt from the asset test in California, as they are in some states). They cannot save for college (California is not among the states that have exempted 529 college savings plans from their asset tests). They cannot establish an emergency fund. Family members like me cannot give them financial help, at least not officially. If either of them receives an inheritance, it will go to Medi-Cal. Medi-Cal services that my sister-in-law uses after age 55 will be added to a tab that she will rack up over the rest of her life. When she and my brother die, the state will put a lien on their estate; their child may inherit nothing. Even my brother’s hobby runs afoul of the asset test: he enjoys working on old cars, which he can no longer keep.

This is what this story reminds us:  for too many of our fellow citizens, our health care system, when it delivers care at all, turns families permanently poor.

This is what “Repeal” means.  Welcome to the Republican vision for health care.*

Oh — and, yes, of course, this is what the case before the Supreme Court is alll about.  Which is why the willed and faux-naive ignorance of  Scalia, Alito and others earns the name of evil.

Go read the whole piece.  Get angry, then angrier.  If you live with GOP representatives, send this column to them.  If you have friends or family or acquaintances who might be able to make the same leap John managed, pass it on to them too.  Pressure is a daily accumulation of little taps and nudges, and there is no time the present.

*I won’t insult you by adding the reflexive “and Replace,” as there is no replacement on offer; vouchers are not a health care system, and would, as now proposed, do that quantity of good that asymptotically approaches zero for this family.

Image: Gustave Doré, A Couple and Two Children Sleeping Under the London Bridge 1871.

Now you see why Judge Sotomayor will be a Supreme Court Justice, and Sen. Coburn will not:

July 15, 2009

Update…Ooops — wrong Republican trying to perform Latino/a outreach in the title.  Apologies…(Memo to self:  don’t blog and speed…)

There is nothing more to say to the video below but OMG.  I mean, Lucille Ball was a comic genius and worthy of all kinds of tribute, and Desi Arnaz was a great foil for her comedy, and a fine musician and producer too, but talk about tin — no make that lead — ears, and  you have the Hon. (sic) Senator Sessions Coburn.

So:  how’s that GOP – Latino/a outreach working for you folks?

(h/t DougJ at Balloon Juice.)

John McCain’s reality problem: Guantanamo, State Power, and Theoretical Physics

June 17, 2008

You have to be quick to be good. Today, via Atrios, George Will (George Will!) is actually saying the right thing about John McCain’s latest, almost tragic, self negation.

The back story: The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that prisoners held by the US, on territory the US wholly controls, actually have some baseline of essential rights, in particular the right to make a habeas corpus claim, requesting a hearing (requesting! not automatically receiving) in which the government must demonstrate that it has due cause to hold the complainant, or else release him or her.

So what happened next? Joy amongst those who think the Constitution has some life in it yet, visions of the apocalypse for those who feel the rule of law is for other people.

John McCain, sadly — and I mean that — lined up with the latter, declaring the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

It is sad: I’m no John McCain fan (dog-bites-man…ed.), but he is someone who once seemed to have a sense of who he was, and now he doesn’t. On everything from torture (agin it, except when the proper Americans do it) to energy polict, (even Cheney thinks he’s gone wacky) he now seems willing to say whatever he thinks at that moment might help him out. It’s never a pretty sight to see someone turning themselves into a caricature in public.

But here McCain is worse than sad: he’s dangerous on two levels. The first is obvious, and it is the one Will nailed — with exactly the same serious of examples I was planning to provide. As he writes,

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

No; of course not. As Will points out, there are in fact some issues to argue here — but there is no way to say that this decision defies reason or legal basis.

Will goes on to have some fun with McCain — there’s a tone of real contempt in lines like “Did McCain’s extravagant condemnation of the court’s habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents?”

While I can enjoy such snark (and from such a source!) the real point of Will’s column, and the one that moves the whole incident into the realm of a blog concerned with what science can offer public life is the real risk of a McCain presidency exposed here. And it is not just that he’s revealed (once again) as a shoot from the hip reactive kind of guy (contrast his approach to this legal decision with former law professor Obama’s preparation here). Rather, it is that there is a real problem in electing Humpty Dumpty to any responsible office.

That is: the one constant across all the disciplines that call themselves science is a commitment to reality, to acknowledging the actual data that observation and experiment produce, however much they may conflict with worldview or desire. Here’s Albert Einstein, acknowledging in public, for as broad a lay audience as he could reach, explaining the significance of of the new discoveries of quantum mechanics:

There is no doubt that quantum physics explained a very rich variety of facts, achieving, for the most part, splendid agreement between theory and observation. The new quantum physics removes us still further from the old mechanical view, and a retreat to the former position seems, more than ever, unlikely….The qunatum theory again created new and essential features of our reality…”

Einstein never reconciled himself to critical aspects of the modern quantum theory; he spent three decades looking for a more general theory that would subsume it; and yet he nominated its first architects, Heisenberg and Schroedinger for the Nobel Prize, and he did not deny its obvious power or importance. He hated it, but he knew it meant something very, very significant.

Contrast that with McCain in action here. It is a fact that this decision falls within the mainstream of American jurisprudence — one may not like the outcome, and there are meaningful arguments to support that dislike, but this is a perfectly conventional bit of Constitutional reasoning. To say that this is “one of the worst” Supreme Court actions is simply to ignore example after example, fact after fact, that gives the lie to McCain’s pique.

This post is long enough. I’d just say that we’ve had enough of people asserting facts not in evidence for their own, temporary advantage. If there were a ever a single disqualifying attribute in a potential President, it is this truly anti-science willingness to ignore what they do, or should, know to be essential features of the reality we inhabit.

Image:  Jade Record, Chinese, 19th Century.  Depiction of sinners being tortured in the sixth court of hell.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.