The American Melting Pot

February 17, 2015

I’d like to share with you some thoughts that came out of a short piece I was asked to write about the Roberts Court. I’d like to dedicate this commentary to Yusor Abu-Salha, who spoke on NPR’s Story Corps about how wonderful the U.S. is, where people of all backgrounds share one culture, shortly before she, her husband and sister-in-law were killed in Chapel Hill because they were Muslims, and to all the others, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and all who have been murdered or tortured because they had what bigots defined as the wrong parents or beliefs.

You might think that the melting pot is the result of a lot of individual private decisions. But you’d be mostly wrong. Actually the melting pot is the result of a series of very public decisions. We made the decision, centuries ago, to provide a public education to everyone. That put us in the forefront of the world as an educated, progressive, productive and egalitarian society. We made the decision almost two centuries ago to provide public coeducational schooling. That put us in the forefront of the world in creating decent and progressive gender relations. We made the decision long ago to provide an education to immigrant children alongside the children who had been born here. That made us one people, regardless of where we came from. And all the private decisions in the great American melting pot took place in a world defined by our public schools.

Finally in the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that we would treat race the same way that we had treated gender, language, religion and ethnic differences – that is, we would bring everybody into the same public schools. That opened the melting pot to still more of us so that our racial divisions are less sharp than they were a century ago – nowhere close to erased, but less sharp.

Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[1] But he wrote that in connection with a decision to prevent a pair of school districts from bringing people together across racial lines. No melting goes on with Roberts at the stove.

When decisions are made that advantage the majority, Justice Scalia makes it plain he thinks that’s just normal; he sees no need to ask whether anyone was discriminating or intending to treat minorities differently.[2] But there’s no vice versa for Scalia – any decision favoring racial minorities is automatically suspect for him. Indeed, he and Thomas have described “legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination” as “special protection” and “favored status.”[3]

In 1782, French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, famously wrote that immigrants “melted” easily into Americans, and freed themselves from the slavery of the Old World.[4] The same year, the Founders of our country adopted our motto, e pluribus unum, Latin for out of many one. Our Founders did all they could to welcome immigrants, making e pluribus unum a reality for us. That has been our country’s glory. That welcome has peopled our continental expanse, brought to our country the most talented and driven from all parts of the world, and allowed us all to share in the benefits of each other’s talents and accomplishments. That welcome has allowed us to build a country without the hostilities that have torn and still so blatantly tear other countries apart. There is nothing more truly American than e pluribus unum. And nothing more central to the development of our great country than the melting pot, even if some of those who now lead our highest institutions can no longer see it or enjoy its savory aroma. It was left for the British writer Israel Zangwill in 1909 to put the immigrants into “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” adding, “Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[5]

The Founders worked specifically to welcome Muslim immigrants to America. They would have been proud of the Abu-Salhas and ashamed of Craig Hicks, and would join us in cherishing the diversity of people who share decent lives in America and praying for that mutual respect everywhere.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 17, 2015.

[1] Parents Involved v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007)

[2] League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 515-18 (2006) (Scalia, J., dissenting in part).

[3] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 645, 652-53 (1996) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[4] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

[5] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts (1909).


Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.


Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman and the Voting Rights Act

November 25, 2014

Yesterday, President Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, a Black Mississippian and two white New Yorkers, murdered fifty years ago, working to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi. They were among many who lost their lives in that struggle.

Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said the best way to honor her husband “and all the others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow would be the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act and its aggressive enforcement.”[1]

At the last hearings on renewal of the Voting Rights Act, witnesses made clear that efforts to rig the process against African-Americans continue unabated, moving polling places, changing district lines, reorganizing forms of government so that Blacks could still be excluded. Because the Voting Rights Act gave the United States Attorney General power to reject changes, those efforts had not succeeded.

In Shelby County v. Holder,[2] Justice Roberts used the Act’s success against it, saying it is no longer needed because the statistics are better. Pamela Karlan, a highly-respected Stanford Law professor, told Congress:

“ if you have a really bad infection and … the doctor … give[s] you a bunch of pills, and … tell[s] you, ‘Do not stop taking these pills the minute you feel better. Go through the entire course of treatment because, otherwise, the disease will come back in a more resistant form.’ … [T]he Voting Rights Act is strong medicine, but it needs to finish its course of treatment, and that has not yet happened … [as] you have heard from other witnesses. ”[3]

Those other witnesses made clear that the efforts to undo electoral integration continues almost unabated and would come roaring back if allowed. The Court stripped the pre-clearance provisions from the Voting Rights Act and the disease came roaring back just as Prof. Karlan predicted.

Should we care about African-American voters? Absolutely. Morally, they’re people like us. Democracy has no right over peoples denied the vote.

And for our own self-interest. Martin Niemöller said of the Nazis:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain, the power of dictators is built on shrinking the number of people to whom he or she owes her power, and then rewarding those folk big-time.

You have no stake in southern white racist politics. If you’re Democrats, you have no stake in Republicans winning by excluding African-Americans. In Congress and state legislatures, people of good will are allies. We cannot win on the nonracial issues important to us if we allow our African-American fellow citizens to be excluded from the vote.

Those who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments understood that having won the Civil War they could lose the peace if African-Americans could be prevented from voting in the former Confederate states.  We all have a stake in a society where all are represented because that is our chance for a just society in which government is not just of, by and for people who think they’re better than the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 25, 2014.

 

[1] Jerry Mitchell, Presidential medal to honor 3 slain civil rights workers, JOURNEY TO JUSTICE, The Clarion-Ledger, November 18, 2014, available at http://www.clarionledger.com/story/journeytojustice/2014/11/10/presidential-medal-of-freeom-given-three-slain-civil-rights-workers/18826791/, or http://on.thec-l.com/1ugJ0pp, visited Nov. 24, 2014.

[2] 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)

[3] Statement Of Pamela S. Karlan, in The Continuing Need For Section 5 Pre-Clearance, Hearing Before The Committee On The  Judiciary, United States Senate, One Hundred Ninth Congress, Second Session, May 16, 2006, Serial No. J–109–77, S. Hrg. 109–569, at 5.


Religion, Health, Corporations, and the Court

July 8, 2014

Last week the Supreme Court decided, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, that Hobby Lobby, and other closely held profit making corporations, could claim religious exemptions from federal law, and they could withhold some forms of contraception from their health plans.[i]

RFRA was a reaction to a 1990 decision about Native American use of peyote at religious ceremonies in which Justice Scalia wrote for the Court that the First Amendment did not require a religious exemption for the “incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision.”[ii] The rule could not be targeted at any religion; it had to be “neutral.”

That seemed like a reasonable attempt to create a fair rule. But many of us reacted that there was nothing neutral in a set of rules that banned peyote but permitted wine at religious exercises, or in generally applicable rules that had obvious and discriminatory effects on Native Americans. It was a good example of how apparently neutral rules could be designed with large discriminatory consequences – think Sunday or sabbath closing laws or rules about the ways we can dress that do or don’t prevent us from wearing a yarmulka, a hajib, or a pendant with the symbols of our faiths. So Congress passed RFRA. It said people should be able to practice religion their own ways unless government had a compelling interest in making everyone conform to the general rule and there was no less restrictive way of accomplishing that purpose. RFRA was understood as restoring the rule of a Warren Court decision, Sherbert v. Verner.[iii] Read the rest of this entry »


The Anti-Union Court

July 1, 2014

The Court decided yesterday in Harris v. Quinn that at least some of the employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement don’t have to share in the costs of negotiating that agreement. The Court says it violated their First Amendment rights. How many unions and employees it will apply to is still unclear but this is not the first move the Roberts Court has made in that direction.[i] Sometimes the patterns matter much more than the individual decisions, whether good or bad. Read the rest of this entry »


The Threat of Self-Styled Armed Militias

May 20, 2014

Some of us remember having to sign loyalty oaths. In the language of the U.S. Supreme Court, one had to swear that he or she had not “advocate[d] the overthrow of government by force, violence, or any unlawful means.” That included the overthrow of “the Government of the United States or of any political subdivisions.” In the 1950s everyone from barbers to professors had to sign those things and even cafeteria workers got fired on mere suspicion of disloyalty, the absence of proof notwithstanding.

Of course it was political. Senator McCarthy famously attacked President Truman and many of the people in the cabinet as disloyal. Republicans attacked Democrats and liberals as if they supported a Communist invasion. It was a campaign of character assassination. Charges were brought without facts that prosecutors were willing to reveal until the Supreme Court pointed out that it had the obligation to insist on fundamental due process like the right to see the charges and confront witnesses. But at least, at some level, however misguided, it was about patriotism.

Now, a group of armed self-styled militiamen blocked the federal government from charging Cliven Bundy the fee for grazing his cattle on federal land. Then they took their weapons to a closed federal canyon, to open it by force for use by ATVs. They bluntly deny the authority of the federal government. To make it worse, prominent Republicans called Bundy’s refusal to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, and the armed intervention of his militia supporters, “patriotic.” Read the rest of this entry »


Passover – The Indivisibility of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others. Read the rest of this entry »


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