“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner’s overused quote from “Requiem for a Nun” was quite apt to describe last week, as we were continually reminded of the legacy of our racial past in America’s present. Congressional hearings regarding reparations for the descendants of enslaved Americans, a Supreme Court decision that emphatically reminded us of racism’s permeation of our criminal justice system and Joe Biden’s fond remembrance of his years of Senate service with segregationists all converged during the week, which marked the 154th anniversary of Juneteenth.
The Democratic-controlled House is on its way to considering, and quite likely endorsing, legislation that would establish a federal commission to study the lingering impacts of slavery and make recommendations for proper reparations. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the quite reasonable legislation. Leading the charge at the hearing was U.S. Senator Cory Booker, the presidential candidate who has companion legislation in the Senate and who sees appropriate reparations as crucial to building an equity-based beloved community. But, unsurprisingly, the most thoughtful endorsement of the proposal came from this generation’s most insightful analyst of race’s legacy in American life, Ta-Nehisi Coates. His 2014 piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” gets credit for reinvigorating the conversation regarding reparations. Much of Coates’s Wednesday testimony was framed as a response to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement a day earlier that rejected “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible.” As Coates retorted: “That is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something.’ It was 150 years ago and it was right now.”
With one glaring exception (we’ll get to him in a minute), most of the leading Democratic candidates for president have endorsed the proposed legislation. Somewhat ironically, since his failure to connect with African-American voters threatens to doom his White House ambitions, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was most thoughtful in his views on the topic when asked about the issue during a recent Fresno town hall meeting. As part of a lengthy response, Buttigieg said: “[L]ook, a lot of people think, ‘Well, why should I have to contribute to this in any way because I wasn’t around in the Civil War or something.’ But we are living in these racist systems today, and that’s why in entrepreneurship, in home ownership, in health, in education, of course in criminal justice — not to mention in democracy itself where it is systematically harder for people of color, especially black neighborhoods to be able to access the vote in so many parts of this country, that we have to systematically reverse that.”
Mississippi Prosecutor Doug Evans is a face of such a racist system. Evans has practiced the art of striking African-Americans as prospective jurors to enhance his ability to convict African-Americans of crimes. But, Evans’s practices were too much for the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling Friday in the death penalty case of Curtis Flowers. Flowers has been tried six times for murder and convicted four times for the 1996 murder of four at a Winona, Miss., furniture store; in all cases, Evans was the prosecutor. In previous convictions, appeals courts had found clear evidence that race was at the heart of Evans’s striking of black jurors. Evans had claimed that race-neutral reasons existed for the striking of black jurors for the conviction at issue in the Flowers v. Mississippi decision handed down Friday. Even conservative members of the Supreme Court didn’t buy Evans’s arguments. In his majority opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the pattern of peremptory challenges (41 of 42 prospective black jurors were struck across the six trials) was damning. Looking at the cases taking place across two decades, Kavanaugh wrote, “We cannot ignore that history. We cannot take that history out of the case.”
In his emphatic dissent in the Flowers case, Justice Clarence Thomas snarkily claimed that the seven-justice majority was simply attempting to “boost its self-esteem.” In reality, however, the consensus rejection of the racist legacy symbolized by the Mississippi criminal justice system does say something important about the norm of racial equality in 2019 American society. And, that returns us to the one major Democrat who has resisted the reparations legislation under consideration: Joe Biden.
At a Tuesday evening fundraiser, Biden bemoaned the loss of civility among decision-makers at the federal level and how that differs from the early days of his political career. As examples of how he was able to work across lines of difference, Biden cited former Mississippi U.S. Sen. James Eastland. “At least there was some civility. We got things done,” said Biden. Unfortunately for the former vice president, one thing he “got done” by working with segregationists like Eastland and Georgia’s Herman Talmadge was anti-bussing legislation that undermined civil rights efforts at a key moment in the battle for fully integrating America’s public schools. When criticized about his statements by his opponents for the Democratic nomination, and most emphatically so by Sen. Booker, Biden doubled down rather than apologizing.
One feels some sympathy for politicians like Biden who stay in public life and have to be re-elected across the decades as issues ebb and flow. Stances that were in step in one era are out of synch with another. However, Biden’s addle and defensive positions on matters of race are particularly damaging in a Democratic party where issues of equality (on race, gender, and sexuality) are the true litmus test. Biden’s sheer likability and pragmatic pitch that he’s the one candidate who can defeat Trump might be enough to get him the nomination. But, if he is the nominee, it is simply impossible to see how he activates millennial and Gen Z progressives, who tend to be purists on matters of equality, in the numbers necessary to ensure electoral success.
The man ironically advantaged if that is the case? President Trump, that one leader who actually stands at odds with the norm of racial equality.