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OPINION

Va. fiasco puts Dems’ troubled racial history on display

WALT HANDELSMAN/TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY

By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: February 5, 2019

The Democratic Party has a mixed legacy on race, to put it charitably. But the lines may never have been set up more favorably for it than today.

That’s one reason the controversy over racism in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s past is so important, and why his quick departure is so important.

Divisions have not always been as they are today.

In the post-Civil War era, Democrats passed laws to block Republican moves supporting the South’s newly emancipated black population. Democratic President Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal government. Southern Democrats led efforts against federal civil rights legislation into the mid-20th century.

And even Franklin D. Roosevelt, the greatest Democratic president of the last century, made only minimal moves toward recognizing black Americans’ rights, concerned about maintaining his support among Southern lawmakers who provided strong support for his international policies in an era of isolationism.

But on a hot July 1948 night in Philadelphia, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey signaled a change that transformed American politics, urging delegates at the Democratic National Convention to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Since then, the Democratic Party has led efforts outlawing legalized discrimination. The 1954 Supreme Court decision barring school segregation helped mold public opinion, but it galvanized Southern opponents. Republicans, identified from their founding with expanding rights, joined wholeheartedly in passing landmark civil rights measures that climaxed with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacted by overwhelming margins over mainly Southern Democratic opposition.

But some Republicans led by 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater wooed white Southerners turned off by the Democrats’ stance, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to presciently foresee a political backlash though congressional support for voting rights remained bipartisan. As recently as 2006, Congress extended the law’s main provisions by near-unanimous votes, despite growing GOP questions about its scope, which surfaced that year in cautionary comments from Senate Republicans.

After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, buoyed by a rising tide of African-American and younger voters, GOP-controlled states began passing new restrictions on voting, such as strict voter ID requirements. In 2013, the Supreme Court, led by a chief justice, John Roberts, who long harbored doubts about the Voting Rights Act, echoed that 2006 Senate GOP report by declaring unconstitutional the key portion requiring states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear voting law changes with the Justice Department.

The court’s avowed goal of updating that provision was not unreasonable. But the practical impact of its decision was to kill it, because congressional Republicans showed no interest in fixing the law.

Since then, a wide gap has developed between Democrats seeking to maintain and further the ability of all Americans to enjoy equal voting rights and some Republicans driven by concerns over questionable voter fraud. Republicans in Southern states enacted a variety of restrictive measures, which critics say are aimed at curbing the votes of minorities.

More recently, that gap was illustrated by President Donald Trump’s slowness to condemn white supremacists and the contrast between Obama’s energetic Justice Department enforcement of voting rights and the exact opposite stance by Trump’s Justice Department, starting with its early decision to stop supporting a challenge to the Texas voter ID law.

The gap was exemplified in recent weeks when the new House Democratic majority introduced a measure that, among other things, would revise and update the Voting Rights Act and encourage voting by easing registration and making Election Day a federal holiday. On the day the House Judiciary Committee opened hearings, the top congressional Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, denounced the Democratic proposals as a partisan “power grab.”

It is against this backdrop that the totally unexpected controversy erupted over the disclosure of racist imagery on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical college yearbook page and the virtually unanimous Democratic denunciation of the governor’s tone-deaf response, which included volunteering that he put shoe polish on his face in a 1984 depiction of singer Michael Jackson.

At a time the nation’s non-white voting population continues growing, the Democrats see both a moral and a practical aspect to maintaining their fervent pro-civil rights positions and condemning deviations. Aside from being wrong, the latter would create problems with the black voters who have become one of the party’s largest and most influential factions.

That is especially true in Virginia, where voters next November will fill all 140 seats in the Senate and the House of Delegates. The GOP currently holds narrow two-vote margins, and a large minority voter turnout is crucial to Democratic hopes.

Some GOP critics see the degree to which Democrats have championed minority rights in recent years as a crassly political response. While they are right that Democrats see political advantages in their position, it has the added value of being right. That juxtaposition has not always been the way American politicians have approached the issue of civil rights.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.

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