Trying to read underneath

January 24, 2001|By Alison Snow Jones

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. -- The nomination of John Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general has two dimensions that are problematic.

Most obvious is the problem that the nomination is divisive, this from a president whose claim to be compassionate, inclusive and bipartisan is probably the only factor that brought him within striking distance of Al Gore in the popular vote. President Bush's nomination of Mr. Ashcroft diminishes his credibility.

The more important problem is Mr. Ashcroft's checkered track record on civil rights. The Republicans raise many examples indicating Mr. Ashcroft was being inclusive and lacked racial bias. But there are several examples of either an incredible lack of sensitivity or a lack of commitment to issues of racial equality.

The most dangerous kind of bigotry is the subtle kind. Very few people today would support someone for national public office who was openly anti-minority. But you don't have to be openly anti-minority to be a racist.

Many who would oppose legislation that has a positive impact on minority groups are nice people with firmly held values, often mainstream religious values. They usually have some good reason why opposing the legislation is justified: states' rights, private property rights and uniform voting laws.

Mr. Ashcroft vetoed two bills while governor of Missouri. Both were intended to increase voter registration in St. Louis, which is predominantly African-American and Democratic. While voter registration in the city was several percentage points above the national average, it was 15 percentage points below the rate in the surrounding white, Republican county.

Mr. Ashcroft vetoed the first bill because it singled out St. Louis. In anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, he felt that the absence of a uniform application of the law to all of Missouri warranted the veto. The state legislature then sent him a bill that applied to the entire state. He vetoed that bill on the grounds that it violated citizen rights to fair elections since it might make voter fraud more likely.

I do have a problem with his not being more proactive in fashioning a bill that he could allow to pass into law.

On the surface, this does not appear to reflect a racist attitude. But racist attitudes are seldom easy to spot. The consequences of Mr. Ashcroft's actions, however, were undeniably racist. They served to continue a major inequity in local voter registration along racial and political lines.

Similarly, as Missouri attorney general, he fought school desegregation on the argument that it imposed undue costs on taxpayers. He made no effort to fashion a desegregation plan that would work. It never seemed to occur to him that there might be more than tax dollars at stake.

What Mr. Ashcroft's purely economic (and narrow) perspective ignored is that an improved education will mean future taxpayers will earn higher wages and pay more taxes. His view, at best, is a myopic one. At worst, it reflects something far more disturbing: a lack of commitment to providing, regardless of income or race, the basic privilege of providing the means of escaping poverty -- a good and useful education.

Racism is often subtle. Nice people think racist thoughts. Nice people do racist things. We think they're nice because they're one of us. They go to our church, they belong to our clubs, they live next door, they love their children and their country and their god.

We think they're nice because we're of the same race so we don't experience their subtle racism. We see them being nice to minority individuals because, one-on-one, they really are nice people. And when they express views that have a faintly racist note, they always have good reasons for them that have nothing to do with race.

But they seldom take the next step and ask, "How can I achieve something that is racially and socially equitable within my ethical or philosophical or economic framework?" I give them the benefit of the doubt. I actually think that most of them believe what they say.

They believe the reasons they give for vetoing bills and not supporting legislation that would protect minorities. They don't know they're racist. That's what makes them so dangerous, especially when they hold public office.

Alison Snow Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Science at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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