Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Texas school board action could expose truth about slavery

By DeWayne Wickham

It’s late August 2011 and the new school year has just begun in Austin. Answering a nationwide search for anyone willing to teach history in the city’s public schools, I’ve taken my place at the head of a history class.

I landed the job after a lot of the school’s history teachers quit in protest of the curriculum changes the State Board of Education ordered in May 2010. These changes made a lot of liberals — and people across the political spectrum from President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan to George W. Bush’s first Education secretary, Rod Paige — cry foul.

But where they saw catastrophe, I see opportunity.

Among other things, the Texas board wants students to be taught about the inaugural addresses that both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave on the eve of the Civil War. Its motive was to give credence to the South’s case for seceding from the union. I think the board’s change opens up another possibility. It unwittingly gives teachers an opening to prove that the Civil War’s root cause was slavery.

So, motivated by a desire to end the long-running attempt by those who want to cleanse the South of the awful stain of slavery and the bloody war Southerners fought to preserve it, I launch into this discussion of Davis’ and Lincoln’s inaugural addresses on the first day of class.

Davis gave his speech two weeks before Lincoln took office, I tell my students, and those remarks leave little doubt what cause created the Confederacy. It was, Davis said, “actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights, and promote our own welfare.”

What rights was he talking about, a student asks?

I pull out a copy of the Confederate constitution, which differed only slightly from that of the United States, and pointed to two provisions.

One, I tell my students, makes unconstitutional the enactment of any law “denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.” The other says “negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress” in any new states or territories that might be acquired by the Confederacy.

Slavery, I tell my students, was the primary reason 11 Southern states tried to leave the Union. The states’ rights argument was about the right of these states to maintain that peculiar institution. The term “sectional conflict” that some suggest as another reason for the war is a veiled way of describing Southern discontent with the North over whether slavery would be permitted in new states.

Lincoln acknowledged as much in his inaugural address. “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” he said, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.”

Despite Lincoln’s promise not to “directly or indirectly” interfere with slavery, the rebellious states plunged the nation into a Civil War that took 610,000 lives and inflicted nearly one million casualties, I tell my students.

Of course, it’s not likely that I’ll really ever get a chance to teach that history lesson to Texas schoolchildren. Not as long as the revisionists who now dominate the state’s 15-member education board are in power. The history they want taught is based not in fact, but in ideology.

It is the product of political zealotry, not an honest reading of an inaugural address that reveals Lincoln as a reluctant patriot — and Davis as a rebel.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kagan's pick boxes in black leaders

By DeWayne Wickham

President Obama’s choice of Elena Kagan to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has boxed in a lot of black leaders who weren’t consulted in advance on her selection, but now are expected to fend off a left-wing attack on her nomination.

Even so, some of that support came quickly. Just five days after Kagan’s selection, the NAACP announced its endorsement of her after completing what the civil rights organization called “a careful and thorough review” of the 50-year-old nominee’s record.

Back in 1991, the NAACP took 45 days to produce a 77-page report, with an epilogue from John Hope Franklin, to make its case for opposing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination. In Kagan’s case, it used just a one-page press release to explain its decision. The press release touted Kagan’s efforts to diversify the student body of the Harvard Law School during her nearly 6-year-stint as dean.

Nonetheless, NAACP President Ben Jealous told me his group’s examination of Kagan was exhaustive, despite the White House’s late attempt to build support among civil rights organizations for the high court nominee whose diversity record has come under attack.

Kagan’s defenders say this is a bad rap. They argue the small number of minorities hired (2 black and an Asian out of 43 permanent, full-time faculty members) brought onto the law school faculty while she was dean shouldn’t be blamed on her. The decision wasn’t hers alone. It required a vote of the faculty, they said.

But that explanation is muddled by the credit Obama gave Kagan in his nomination statement. “At times when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint,” the president said, “she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars” the Cambridge, Mass., law school.

And as if these conflicting claims weren't bad enough, one day before Obama nominated Kagan, a group of 28 prominent black women sent a letter to the president expressing concern about her rumored selection.

It IS into this political swamp that leaders of black civil rights groups now find themselves. There's a sense among some that they're expected to support plays being run by the White House, even though they weren’t in the huddle when they were called.

"There was an unusual level of discipline," Jealous said diplomatically of the White House's failure to give his group advance notice of Kagan's selection. That was valuable time the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group could have used to do its own vetting of Kagan and strengthen its ability to defend her selection.

National Urban League President Marc Morial, whose support the White House also has courted, hasn’t been as quick to jump on the Kagan bandwagon. “We have started this process late,” he said of his group’s examination of Kagan’s record, “because prior to the nomination there was not an opportunity for consultation in advance.”

Morial said the Urban League is waiting for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – which was once headed by Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice and a civil rights icon – to finish its review of Kagan before it takes a position on her.

In the meantime, the White House should do a review of its own. Not of Kagan, but instead of its handling of her nomination, and the shabby treatment it gave black civil rights groups that now may be key to saving Kagan from a growing fury on political left.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Arizona's immigration law an act of insurrection

By DeWayne Wickham

Though it has been settled law since the Civil War ended that a state cannot secede from the union, Arizona is acting as though it believes it can.

Given this existential loophole, Gov. Jan Brewer has signed a bill that unilaterally gives her state the power to enforce federal immigration law and mandates that people who cross its borders carry an identity card acceptable to Arizona.

The law defines this as an Arizona driver's license, identity card, tribal identification, or any federal, state or local government ID issued after a person proved he's a legal resident of the U.S. Anyone caught in the Grand Canyon State without one of these IDs will be subject to up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. It takes effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

Arizona's law ostensibly targets “alien(s)” who are “unlawfully present in the United States.” But there's little doubt it will be used disproportionately against Hispanics, who are 30 percent of the state's population. “We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels,” Brewer said at the bill-signing ceremony.

“We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life. We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north,” she said in an apparent reference to the drug war raging in Mexico.

But the law doesn't target drug dealers so much as it stigmatizes Arizona's large Mexican population. “The way it's tailored is very clear. You're looking for brown-skinned individuals. … It's people coming across the border illegally and they're talking mostly about Mexicans,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada told Tucson TV station KGUN9.

Keeping people from illegally entering this country isn't a bad idea. But Arizona's law is an “ends justify the means” attempt that enjoys widespread support among its voters. According to a Rasmussen poll, while 53 percent of the state's likely voters think enforcement of the law will potentially violate the civil rights of some U.S. citizens, 70 percent support it anyway. The law is backed by 84 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of unaffiliated voters.

There are, fortunately, some pockets of resistance. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat, has threatened to file suit against the new law. Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a Republican, tried to talk Brewer into vetoing the immigration bill. More than 1,000 Phoenix high school students, who used Twitter and Facebook to organize, walked out of class and marched to the state Capitol to protest the measure a day before Brewer signed it Friday.

But it will be left to the federal government to counter Arizona's immigration witch hunt.

The Obama administration can do this by refusing to take custody of any nonviolent illegal immigrants whom local police charge with “misdemeanor trespassing” — the immigration offense the new law creates. Faced with a $3 billion budget deficit, Brewer is pushing a controversial 1-cent sales tax increase that will be on the state's ballot on May 18.

If illegal immigrants are left in the state's custody, Arizona will have to bear the financial cost of its decision to usurp the federal government's authority to legislate immigration laws.

While such a stance isn't likely to produce a surrender like the one at Appomattox Court House that ended the Civil War, it could force Arizona's governor and lawmakers to end their legislative insurrection.