Thursday, September 25, 2008

Presidential Debates Are Good Theater, But Not Much More

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

To some, Republican presidential contender John McCain is a noble citizen for citing the urgency of the financial implosion as the reason for trying to delay the first debate with Democratic rival Barack Obama. To others, it’s simply a naked, crass, and desperate effort by McCain
to seize back a tiny patch of the high ground from Obama on his strong point issue of the economy.
It doesn’t much matter what the true motive for the stall is it won’t change the fact that presidential debates make good theater but not much more. In a late life reflection in 1987 on what went right and wrong in his long and checkered political career, former President Richard Nixon had this to say about presidential debates, "In the television age, a candidate's appearance and style count far more than his ideas and record."
Nixon more than any other presidential candidate in modern times should know about that. The widely held belief is that Nixon's fidgety, wooden style, and unkempt appearance in his first 1960 televised debate with a relaxed, tanned, youthful looking John F. Kennedy did him in.
In their two follow-up debates, though, a much better composed and relaxed Nixon came off as having as good, if not better, command of the issues than Kennedy. His perceived debate loss to Kennedy didn't finish him. The probable vote machinations by Democrats in Illinois, a lukewarm, belated endorsement by the wildly popular President Dwight Eisenhower, and Nixon's refusal to phone Martin Luther King Sr. to offer support when Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for civil rights protests in Georgia badly damaged him. Kennedy made the call. As a result, Nixon's vote among blacks dropped nearly 10 percent from Eisenhower's in 1956.
Nixon's alleged debate wash out sealed the belief that an afternoon shadow, mussed hair, a malapropism, and a gaffe during a debate will make or break presidents and their challengers. That's a myth. In 1976, President Ford's bid for a full elected term supposedly went down the tubes when he blurted out that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination during his debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Presumably, that gaffe shot to pieces Ford's credibility on vital foreign policy issues. But Ford could not shake Republican blame for the Watergate scandal, and his pardon of Nixon. This more than his debate miscue did him in.
In 1980, it was thought that Republican challenger Ronald Reagan's carefully scripted and rehearsed "There you go again" retort to Carter when he accused him of wanting to slash Medicare so befuddled Carter that his re-election bid came unglued. But by the time of their debate, Carter's presidency was badly tattered. Voters blamed him for high inflation, unemployment, waves of business failures, and the bungled Iran hostage rescue mission.
In 1988, Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis' automaton-like answer in his debate with Vice President Bush Sr. to the loaded question about the death penalty supposedly blew his presidential bid. But Bush Sr. carried Reagan's imprimatur. The Reagan administration gave the appearance of fostering an economic boom, had stunning foreign policy successes marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and stratospheric public approval ratings.
In his debate with Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in 1992, President Bush Sr. repeatedly glanced at his watch and seemed impatient to get the debate over. That allegedly soured voters on him. That did not torpedo his re-election bid. Bush's inability to resuscitate the economy and urban racial turmoil badly hurt him. What really nailed him was the insurgent campaign of Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot. He siphoned off thousands of potential Republican votes. That cost Bush more than a hundred electoral votes in thirteen key Southern and swing states that Republicans had either won during Reagan's presidential triumphs, or had run strongly in.
In 2000, Bush came off as personable, witty, and conversational in his debate with Democrat Al Gore. By contrast Gore was perceived as stiff, arrogant, and condescending. Yet, many experts believed that despite Gore's personality glitches, he still beat Bush on the issues. Gore went on to win the popular vote. It took the Florida vote debacle and a Supreme Court ruling to settle the matter for Bush.
Do presidential debates then really influence voters to back a candidate and educate them on the issues? Some studies find that a majority of voters feel they don’t learn much from the debates, and are disappointed at that. Even the minority of respondents who say they learn something from the debates insist that they don’t influence their decision on who to vote for. Party affiliation, long-standing political preferences, personal beliefs and values largely determine that.
Obama will win the White House if voters really feel that he can best handle the country’s economic mess. McCain will win if voters really feel that the national security and foreign policy concerns trump the economy and that he’s the best to handle them. As for the presidential debates, they’re still good shows though.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Did Palin Really Say She Wouldn’t Hire Blacks?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Sarah Palin admittedly hasn’t had much of a track record when it comes to acknowledging let alone promoting diversity during her short tenure as Alaska governor. She’s on record with a terse utterance on hate crimes legislation and another one on cultural diversity.

During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign she told the Eagle Forum that she opposed expanded hate crime legislation. In her gubernatorial campaign booklet in 2006, Palin gave her equally terse view of discrimination. She simply said that she and her gubernatorial running mate would provide opportunities for all Alaskans. There is no record that Palin has made any other public statements on diversity and minority issues since then. This in itself might be cause for only a slight eyebrow raise.
But Palin’s skimpy track record and paucity of words on diversity is relatively tame compared to the far more damaging accusation that’s making the rounds. On April 29, fourteen Alaska black leaders that included prominent ministers, NAACP officials, and community activists met with Palin to voice their complaint over minority hiring and job opportunities. During the meeting she allegedly said that she didn’t have to hire any blacks. Even more damning, she purportedly said that she didn’t intend to hire any.
This charge is so racially incendiary that it sounded like yet another one of the legion of Palin urban legends that have fueled the cyber gossip mill from the instant Republican presidential contender John McCain plopped her on his ticket. The charge had to be confirmed or denied. If Governor Palin or any other public official flatly said that they had no intention to hire blacks that would be politically unpardonable. And for a potential vice-president it would and should be the kiss of death.
In a phone message to this writer, Megan Stapleton, a Palin spokesperson who works with the McCain-Palin campaign committee, vehemently denied that Palin ever said that she would not hire blacks. Sharon Leighow, a communications spokesperson in the Alaska governor’s office, also disputed the allegation. She said that Palin’s press secretary was part African-American and that two of her senior advisors were Filipino and Korean.

But Leighow was also adamant that Palin did not hire staff persons based on color, but solely on talent and skill. As she put it, “Governor Palin is totally color-blind.”

In a call to this writer, Gwen Alexander, President of the African American Historical Society of Alaska who initially reported Palin’s quip stuck by her contention that Palin made the racially charged retort. She also charged that Palin did not support or even officially acknowledge the group’s annual Juneteenth Commemoration.
June nineteen is celebrated as the date of slave emancipation in Texas. Alaska is one of thirteen states that have designated it an official holiday. Other Alaska governors have sent the traditional greeting and acknowledgement to the Society. Alexander says Palin snubbed the group.
The unofficial charge then is that Palin is insensitive to the state’s African-Americans, and that includes refusing to hire and appoint African-Americans. That charge is hotly disputed by Palin’s staff and they cite names and numbers to back it up. But apart from the veracity of the charge and the denial, Palin’s statement that she’s absolutely color blind when it comes to hiring and appointments does set off warning bells.

The color blind argument strikes to the heart of the continuing debate over what and how far governor’s, indeed all public officials, should go to insure that their staffs and their appointments truly represent the broadest diversity possible. Officials must make a concerted outreach effort to make that happen. Palin’s color blind posture more often than not has been nothing but a convenient excuse not to seek out, and hire and promote African-Americans and other minorities in their administration, no matter how qualified.
Diversity is a major issue this election. It’s implicit in Democratic rival Barack Obama’s White House run. It’s explicit in Ward Connerly’s anti-affirmative initiative on the ballot in three states this November. Obama opposes it. McCain backs it, and so does Palin.

Palin’s commitment to diversity is no small point in Alaska. According to the 2000 Census figures blacks make up officially about four percent of the state population. But those who self-identify at least in part as African-American bump up the percentage much higher. This is not an insignificant number especially when American Indians, Aleuts, Eskimos, and Asians are taken together. Minorities then make up about one quarter of Alaska’s population. This makes the state one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Diversity must be more than a word that an Alaska governor pays campaign lip service to and then ignores.
Palin’s campaign and gubernatorial spokespersons say the knock that she is hostile to blacks and minorities is unfair. That may well be true. But to those Alaska black leaders who challenged Palin on her administration’s minority hiring practices, to them the knock is much deserved.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

White Democrats are Bigger Threat to Obama than McCain

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The much talked about recent AP-Yahoo poll found that many whites harbor vicious and vile stereotypes about blacks. This is hardly the revelation of the ages. Nor is its finding that hidden and not so hidden bias toward blacks can potentially torpedo Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama’s White House run. What is eye catching in the poll is the finding that many white Democrats are just as biased if not more so than many Republicans. If Obama sinks, they, not Republican rival John McCain will sink him.

Vote and party jumping based solely on race is nothing new. In a 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that white Republicans are 25 percentage points more likely to cross over and vote for a Democratic senatorial candidate against a black Republican foe. The study also found that in the near twenty year stretch from 1982 to 2000, when the GOP candidate was black, the greater majority of white independent voters backed the white candidate. There’s nothing especially surprising about that since it’s virtually an article of racial faith among blacks, liberal Democrats, and political pundits that overt and subtle racial bias is almost exclusively the monopoly of Republicans. That’s a politically correct delusion.
The study found that many Democrats were just as guilty of dubious Election Day color-blindness as Republicans and independents; maybe even more so. In House races, the study found that Democrats were nearly 40 percent less likely to back a black Democratic candidate than a white Democrat. The shift by conservative-centrist white Democrats to like politic GOP presidential contenders is a staple in recent American politics. The GOP scorecard in White House wins would not be seven to three over the Democrats since Richard Nixon’s win in 1968 if conservative white Democrats had not consistently shifted their vote to the GOP. Democrats have always had a gaping disparity in registered voters over Republicans. In 2004 there were ten million more registered Democrats than Republicans. On paper, the gaping disparity in numbers should guarantee a cake to the White House by any Democrat. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case.
1964 GOP presidential contender Barry Goldwater was the first to spot the opening for the GOP among disaffected white conservative Democrats. His naked states rights pitch and rail against big government and welfare sparked the first wave of white Southern Democrats to the GOP. Nixon exploited the opening even more in 1968. His appeal for law and order, bash of permissiveness, and crackdown on ghetto rioters sparked more flight from the Democrats by blue-collar ethnics. Reagan widened the breach even more among Democrats. Fed up with bussing, affirmative action, and crime (always seen as committed by African-Americans) droves of white Democrats flocked to the GOP in even bigger numbers.

The first big hint that conservative white Democrats could cause problems for Obama came in the Democratic primary in Ohio. Hillary Clinton beat out Obama in the primary and she did it mainly with white votes. But that wasn't the whole story. Nearly one quarter of whites in Ohio flatly said race did matter in voting. Presumably that meant that they would not vote for a black candidate no matter how politically attractive or competent he was.
An even bigger hint of Obama’s race problem came in Pennsylvania's primary. The voter demographics in the state perfectly matched those in Ohio. A huge percent of Pennsylvania voters are blue collar, anti-big government, socially conservative, pro defense, and intently patriotic, and there's a tormenting history of a racial polarization in the state. Take the state's two big, racially diverse cities out of the vote equation, and Pennsylvania would be rock solid red state Republican. Clinton, of course, trounced Obama in the state. The same percent of white Democrats as in Ohio told exit poll interviewers that they would not back Obama. Race was the prime reason. Clinton racked up victories in the West Virginia, Kentucky and South Dakota primaries. Again, a significant percent of white Democrats said they would not back Obama, and the reason was race. This time many white Democrats made no effort to hide their racial animus toward Obama.

In the AP-Yahoo poll one third of white Democrats said they had negative views of blacks. “Violent,” “lazy,” “boastful,” “complaining” and “irresponsible” were the terms many used to describe blacks. More than 40 percent of them said they would not back Obama. This is nearly identical to the number who say they will not back him in the key Democratic primaries.

Just how many of them actually mean what they say is a big question mark. But if past history of party switching by white Democrats holds up the odds are that more than a few mean it. They’d jump the Democratic Party ship even if race wasn’t the obvious issue. But it is, and that could spell trouble for Obama on Election Day.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No Race Card This Time for O.J.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

O.J. Simpson and his attorney loudly complained that the jury in his Las Vegas robbery trial has no blacks on it. But there was never much doubt that it would. That’s the kind of jury that most minority defendants get in Clark County courts. He’s fortunate though that he did get two black juror alternates. Only 5% of the potential jurors among the 500 in the Simpson juror panel were blacks. African Americans make up about 10 percent of Clark County's population.

But even if blacks were on his jury, it wouldn’t much change the fact that this time around there is no race card to play. In the first trial, black and white tongues endlessly wagged and fingers furiously pointed about whether Simpson was a victim of racial persecution in his double murder trial. Polls taken immediately after Las Vegas prosecutors hit Simpson with multi charges showed that the racial divide was a marginal issue.

Oh, there were still more than a few African-Americans who complained that an African-American can’t get a fair trial in any court in America. They even said that was the case with Simpson in Las Vegas. However, there is no hint that blacks are willing to expend an ounce of emotional capital railing that Simpson is a victim of a racist system. Virtually none of the prospective jurors, blacks and whites, uttered anything about race during the jury selection process.

Too much has changed in the decade since the ill-fated trial of the century for that to happen. At the center of that change is Simpson himself; or rather his antics. He hasn’t exactly been the picture of the humble, empathetic, fade into the woodwork former sports icon, and much vilified double murder suspect. Simpson has had multiple encounters with the police and courts, been sued, and has appeared to take every opportunity he could to thumb his nose at the civil court that found him liable for the death of Ron Goldman and his ex-wife and slapped him with a multi-million dollar judgment.

This hardly does much to win Simpson friends let alone convince anyone that he was indeed the victim of a malicious, racist prosecution. Then there are the Las Vegas charges.

There's absolutely no evidence that Simpson was framed or that Las Vegas police licked their chops at the thought of getting him back in a legal noose. He was at the hotel, the goods were taken, and a robbery complaint was filed. There is no evidence that police in any of the cities that Simpson traveled to peddling sports cards and memorabilia routinely subjected him to a special get-Simpson profile. The best or worst that can be said is that Las Vegas prosecutors have taken great pains not too give any hint that they are giving him any special treatment because of his celebrity status. If anything they may be piling the extra heavy felony charges on him precisely not to give the impression of celebrity favoritism.

But then again Simpson of all people should have known that any allegation of his involvement in a crime he'd get the fast collar. That still has everything to do with his murder trial acquittal. Polls still show that a majority of the public think that he is a murderer who skipped away scot-free, and that the trial and his acquittal were a farce and a blatant travesty of justice.

Simpson didn't invent or originate this sometimes ugly divide in public opinion about celebrity guilt. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians that branded the legal system corrupt fueled public belief that justice is for sale. His acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high-priced, high-profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts and investigators that routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, drag out their cases and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment. Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions against celebrities such as Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan, their money, fame, power and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand slap jail sentence, if that.

Whether the police did rush to judgment as Simpson claims -- and there's some wiggle room to debate the magnitude of the charges -- the chatter from most is that a killer is finally getting at least some of his due. Others will say that even Simpson can be a victim of a vindictive and unforgiving criminal justice system. The truth as always may lie somewhere between the two views.

But one thing is certain; race isn’t on the table of public opinion this time around. That’s not a bad thing.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex and Class Lessons for America. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why McCain and Obama Won’t Talk about Race, but Should

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made one speech in March to damp down
the furor over his relationship with his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright. He made another speech at the NAACP convention in July. Other than those two speeches he has not uttered another word about racial issues since. Republican rival John McCain spoke at the same NAACP convention. Shortly after that, he issued a terse statement backing the Ward Connerly concocted anti-affirmative action initiative on the November ballot in Arizona and two other states. Other than that he has not uttered a single word about racial issues since. The audience for McCain and Obama’s speeches at the NAACP convention were mostly blacks. That reinforced the notion that racial issues are by, and for, blacks, with no broad policy implications for all Americans as issues such as health care, jobs and the economy, terrorism and Iraq.

About the only talk about race during the campaign has been the interminable Hydra headed question of: Can Obama make history by being the first African American president? And if he doesn’t will race sink him? That’s hardly the candid, free wheeling, in-depth talk about the problems that impact the lives of millions of black, Latino Asian, and American Indian voters. Minority voters make up about one quarter of American voters and they deserve to hear what the candidates have to say about racial matters, and more importantly what their administration plans to do about them.
Obama and McCain’s racial blind spot has been ritual blindness in all candidates in recent America presidential races. Racial issues have seeped into presidential debates only when they ignite public anger and division. In a 1988 debate, Bush Sr. hammered Democratic contender Michael Dukakis as being a card carrying ACLU’er, a milksop on crime, and tossed in the Willie Horton hit to drive home the point. In one of their debates in 2000, Bush and Democratic challenger, Al Gore clashed over affirmative action.

Race has been a taboo subject for presidents and their challengers on the campaign trail for the past two decades for a simple reason. No president or presidential challenger, especially a Democratic challenger, will risk being tarred as pandering to minorities for the mere mention of racial problems. In stark contrast, Obama, let alone McCain, would never worry about being accused of pandering to Christian Evangelicals by talking incessantly about gay marriage and abortion.
The double standard on race is troublesome to Team Obama. The team knows that race is a minefield that can blow up at any time and the explosion can fatally harm their candidate. Even something seemingly incidental such as the media and public’s outlandish gossipy obsession with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin poses a risk. In this case, her presence alone in the race has hurt. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll days after her entrance found that McCain was now beating oout Obama among white women. The month before Palin came along he was tied with him among the women.

But polls, white voter wariness over race, and Obama and McCain’s nervous eye on them can’t magically make racial issues disappear. In each of it’s annual State of Black America reports the past decade the National Urban League found that blacks are less likely to own their own homes, die earlier, are far more likely to be jailed disproportionately and receive longer sentences, receive less or poorer quality health care and earn far less than whites. They attend failing public schools, and are more likely the victims of racially motivated hate crimes than any other group.
The report also found rampant discrimination and gaping economic disparities between Latinos and whites. In the past decade, the income, and education performance gaps between blacks and Latinos and whites have only marginally closed, or actually widened. Discrimination remains the major cause of the disparities.

Shunting race to the back burner of presidential campaigns invariably means that presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Reagan's administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. Bush Sr.'s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Clinton's administration was saddled with conflicts over affirmative action, police violence and racial profiling. W. Bush's administration has been confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights, reparations, and affirmative action battles, gang violence, and failing inner city public schools. By ignoring, or downplaying these issues until they burst into flashpoints of national debate and conflict, presidents have been ill prepared to craft meaningful legislation and programs to deal with them.
In the closing weeks of the campaign McCain and Obama will repeatedly tell how their administration will deal with problems from the Iraq War to the economy. They should also tell how their administration will deal with the crisis problems that slam minorities and the poor. One or the other will have to confront those problems in the White House.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Todd Palin No Poster Boy for Yup’ik Eskimos or other Native Alaskans

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There was the ever so fleeting moment during her speech at the Republican National Convention when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin paid tribute to hubby Todd. She lightly mentioned that he’s of Yup’ik Eskimo background. Todd Palin beamed with pride at the acknowledgement in front of the packed convention crowd and in front one of the largest TV audiences to ever watch a candidate’s convention speech. But the cheering convention participants and millions of viewers won’t see the same smiles on scores of other of Palin’s Yup’ik Eskimos and many other Native Alaskans.

They make up nearly 20 percent of Alaska’s population. A devastating report by the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2002, “ Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska” painted a picture of decades long economic misery, discrimination, neglect and alienation for Native Alaskans in Palin’s state.

VP candidate Palin boasted that she squeezed the oil and gas industry for billions that have enriched the state’s businesses, residents, and boosted employment in some communities. That prosperity hasn’t touched many Native Alaskans. Overall one fifth of Native Alaskans are below the poverty line. In some rural villages their jobless rate tops 80 percent. Despite sheaths of anti-discrimination laws, and even an affirmative action plan for special needs military veterans, on the books in Alaska, discrimination against Native Alaskans is rampant.

The Alaska Human Rights Commission notes that discrimination complaints jumped more than fifty percent in a seven year period in the late 1990s. Many of those complaints didn’t come from Native Alaskans. Native Alaskan leaders bluntly told civil a civil rights commission community forum in 2001 that they simply didn’t trust the system.

Native Alaskans are more likely to be sicker and have less access to quality, affordable health care than whites. Their infant mortality is more than double that of whites. Their tuberculosis rate is more than twenty times higher than whites. Civil rights commission studies attributed the appalling health statistics to overcrowded and insufficiently ventilated housing, impure water supplies, inadequate waste disposal systems, and general malnutrition.

The racial disparities between Native Alaskans and whites are even more glaring in public education and the criminal justice system. Native Alaskans are slightly more than 12 percent of the state’s public school students. They make up more than one quarter of school drop-outs, and are at rock bottom in their achievement scores in reading and math. Native Alaskans make up a paltry five percent of the teachers and administrators. Many of the students are taught exclusively by white teachers in grossly under-funded rural public schools. Many of the teachers have little understanding of or sensitivity to Aleut, Yup'ik, and Indian culture and language.

Then there are the soaring prison numbers. Native Alaskan males make up less than ten percent of the state’s population, but are nearly forty percent of those behind bars. Despite the outsized disproportionate jail numbers, the civil rights commission found that Native Alaskans are underrepresented in jobs in the child welfare system, legal system, and juvenile justice system.

The criminal justice system disparities are a double edged sword for Native Alaskans. While they are far more likely to be incarcerated than whites, they are also far more likely than whites to suffer rape, domestic violence and homicide. Native Alaskans bitterly complain of laxity by the police and the courts in finding and punishing those who victimize Native Alaskans. Many homicides of Native Alaskans have remained unsolved.

The violence rate against Native Alaskans is so high that some violence prevention experts say that some of the crimes against Native Alaskans could be tagged as hate crimes. Alaska state legislators for a brief time toyed with the idea of enacting a hate crimes law with greater sentencing enhancements. That went nowhere. Even if the legislature had acted, Governor Palin gave a strong hint what its fate would likely be if it landed on her desk. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign she told the Eagle Forum that she opposed expanded hate crime legislation. She branded all heinous crimes as hate crimes.

State Equal Rights Commission officials have complained that the legislature gutted the commission’s budget and cut staff. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. Despite the well documented widespread discrimination and disparities against Native Alaskans there is no public record that Governor Palin has gone to bat for increased funding for the Commission.

In report on the plight of Native Alaskans, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called for massive increases in spending on job and skills training and programs to boost employment, improve education and public services. The commission called for sweeping reforms in the criminal justice and health care systems. The recommendations were made four years before Palin took office. Other than a brief mention of diversity in her gubernatorial campaign speech in 2006, there is no evidence that Palin has said or done anything about the commission’s recommendations. If she had it would have put a beam on the faces of thousands of Yup’ik Eskimos who aren’t named Todd Palin.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Palin’s Blank Sheet on Diversity and Civil Rights

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There’s no record that Alaska Governor and Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin uttered anything more than the obligatory complimentary congratulations to the woman that beat her out for the Miss Alaska title in 1984. The winner was Maryline Blackburn, an African-American. A ritual congratulatory wish from Palin would have been about the only public acknowledgement to date from her about an issue, in this case a beauty contest, where Palin was confronted with the issue of diversity in the person of a competitor.

Since then Palin’s record on race and diversity has been the blankest of blank sheets. The probes into Palin’s record on diversity and civil rights have almost exclusively focused on her views on gay rights, gay marriage, and equal pay. These are crucial civil rights issues. But so is racial diversity and civil rights. The on-line site On the Issues gives a comprehensive look at the positions of elected officials on the major issues based on their statements, speeches, campaign materials and policy position papers. Palin has taken no position on immigration, affirmative action, job and housing discrimination, school re-segregation, police-minority community relations, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system,

On the Issues did list two terse positions Palin took on hate crimes legislation and cultural diversity. Both give a tiny window into the would-be vice president’s thinking on diversity and civil rights. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign she told the Eagle Forum that she opposed expanded hate crime legislation. She branded all heinous crimes as hate crimes. This legal counterintuitive view of what constitutes a hate crime goes squarely against the wide body of law and public policy that defines a hate crime as a willful act or threat based solely on racial, gender or religious animus. By lumping common crimes, no matter how repulsive, into the hate crime category, Palin would effectively gut enforcement of federal hate crime laws.

In her gubernatorial campaign booklet in 2006, Palin gave her equally terse view of discrimination. She simply said that she and her gubernatorial running mate value cultural diversity and would provide opportunities for all Alaskans. She made no mention of affirmative action, job discrimination, and the enforcement of civil rights laws.

Palin made no mention of Alaska’s affirmative action plan. It’s been in place since 1998 and mandates that the state make special efforts to insure that veterans, especially disabled veterans, have equal access to state jobs. Presumably, Palin backs the plan. Yet, she makes no mention on her website are any other place what her office has done to enforce the state’s tightly constricted affirmative action plan.

Knowing Palin’s views on race and civil rights, whatever they are, is more than just a matter political one upmanship. If elected, her views will carry much weight when it comes to making and enforcing legal and public policies that impact minorities and women.

That’s certainly been true in her home state. Alaska’s Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts make up more than fifteen percent of the state’s population. Indian activist groups there have protested discrimination and the disparities in health and education, as well as over their hunting and fishing rights. There is no record that Palin has spoken out on their plight.

Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, his VP running mate Joe Biden and Palin’s Republican mate, John McCain come from state’s that have diverse populations. In the Senate they have spoken out on, taken positions on, and haggled over legislation on immigration, hate crimes, affirmative action, job discrimination, and education disparities. They are keenly sensitive to the importance of civil rights and diversity issues.

The same has been true even with Bush. Before his election in 2000 he promised to make cultural diversity the watchwords in the GOP. That year, and in his reelection bid in 2004, he courted black conservatives and independents. He promised to boost minority business, HIV/AIDS funding, more aid and programs for failing inner city public school, praised the Voting Rights Act, and on occasion spoke out against racially motivated violence.

McCain and Palin, if elected, will likely have to do the same. They will also face sharp challenges on affirmative action, police misconduct, job discrimination, and racial disparities in drug laws, and school funding. They will also be called on to make administrative and court appointments that reflect diversity.

Democrats, much of the media, and a big segment of the public have pounded Palin for her non-existent experience and public pronouncements on foreign policy and national security matters. But she has been absolutely expansive on these issues in comparison to her past and present mute silence about diversity and civil rights.

During her tenure as Alaska governor, Palin didn’t have to say or do much about civil rights. She does now. And we shouldn’t have to wait for her to get to the White House before she does. That’s too great a risk for the country.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).