Why do conservatives make bad arguments about their posture on civil rights? They have better arguments than weak historical claims about being on the right side of the Civil Rights Act about 60 years ago.
Here’s a hypothesis: making good arguments might confuse some white southern conservatives about where Republicans stand on civil rights, folks who would rather the party just, you know, not go there.
Sandy Springs city councilman Gabriel Sterling and I were going a few rounds on Jay Bookman’s piece on Sunday about the Rand Paul dustup at Howard University. I think it’s ludicrous to argue that Republicans are the party of civil rights while ignoring everything the party has done to court southern white racists fleeing the Democratic Party. Mine is a common argument. As Jon Stewart said, “you can’t just yadda yadda yadda the last 60 Republican years.”
Some conservatives seem immune to history by trying to keep this line of argument alive — that it’s really Republicans who are the defenders of civil rights. I asked Sterling to “name one” Republican leader in office today that could credibly claim civil rights leadership. The dancing and evasion began.
After I raised the issue about how sentencing disparities disproportionately harm black defendants, Sterling presented Republican Rep. Wendell Willard’s juvenile justice reform as a step in the right direction.
And I paused.
Outcomes for young people in Georgia’s justice system suck, and they’re worse for black children. For example, the three-year recidivism rate among medium- and high-risk offenders is 57 percent for black youth but just 15 percent for whites, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
The state’s approach to juvenile crime — particularly violent crime — has been to lock up kids and when they commit crimes as adults, lock them up again, for longer. Juvie has become a gladiator factory here: ineffective, expensive and immensely harmful to the black community.
There’s clearly a civil rights and racial equality angle to reform. The reform council working on HB 242 — the juvenile justice reform bill — focused on eliminating racial disparities in the system, said Steven Teske, chief judge of juvenile court in Clayton County. Teske has risen to national attention for his work on reform. And he noted Willard’s attention to the racial issue.
“Chairman Willard joined me on this chorus. … We obtained the racial data on our decisions and there is an unacceptably disproportionate rate of detention and commitments of kids of color. We squarely confronted that in our council meetings and we agreed it was unacceptable. This is why we agreed on multiple evidence based tools to include in the bill to significantly reduce this disparity. Do I consider HB 242 a civil rights bill? No doubt–I must because race was a major issue in our reform discussions and we adopted practices proven to reduce racial disparities.”
But while the working group focused on the racial issues, that’s not what they told the legislature. The bill was largely presented as a cost-saving mechanism — a way to cut $88 million by locking up fewer kids. Even Willard shied away from describing himself as a civil rights leader.
“I can’t put myself in the classification of a ‘civil rights leader,’ as we look at those who have gone before us,” he replied through Facebook. “I do see my efforts as addressing equal justice. This is a benchmark of the work put into HB 242, by me and, I believe, many others. All who come before the court can not expect anything less. It is the standard we must continue to strive for, though we fail, time and time again, to fully achieve.”
So … what to think.
The argument conservatives make about Republicans and the civil rights movement isn’t persuasive to their black audience, which has a well-informed view of recent political history on civil rights. At the risk of making gross generalizations, perhaps some white conservatives don’t think about race all that much – a luxury afforded to those facing comparatively less racial discrimination – but want a way to feel like they’re on the right side of the moral issue despite the modern racial split on politics. The whole Republicans-passed-the-Civil-Rights-Act bit gets them there.
Could this be, perhaps, why better arguments aren’t made? There certainly are better, if imperfect, recent examples of support for racial equality. (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the intent behind No Child Left Behind, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, the appointment of Tim Scott to the Senate, et cetera.)
Locally, the actions of Governor Nathan Deal in the DeKalb County school board fiasco could be presented as affirming equal rights for black schoolchildren — setting aside the arguments of the semi-credible local chapter of the NAACP about voting rights. Wendell Willard’s juvenile court reform could be presented as civil rights legislation. And I have no doubt if either were Democrats, it would have been. But they’re not.
And I think that’s because Republican voters — that is, a particularly noxious flavor of some white southern conservative Republicans — aren’t prepared to view their elected leaders as protectors of civil rights and racial equality. Not all, of course. Not many, even. But enough for canny Republicans to deliberately avoid looking like leaders on the issue. I’ve seen the vitriol whenever a Republican appears to “pander” to minorities. It shows up in our Facebook feeds.