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Falling On General Lee’s Sword: Why Do So Many Conservatives Insist on Going to the Wall For the Worst Historical Actions of Democrats?

After the horrific violence in Charlottesville by white supremacists two weeks ago, right-wing Republican Dinesh D’Souza decided to take to Twitter to complain that leftists were attacking the memory of Robert E. Lee, “who opposed both slavery and secession.” A couple of years ago, I explained that Lee did, in fact, support slavery. Plenty of other historians have pointed this out, and even the right-wing Daily Caller rated D’Souza’s claim false.  In addition to being false, it might seem an odd choice by D’Souza. Just last year, he released a film and a book that correctly excoriated the Democratic Party’s past support for slavery, the Trail of Tears, and Jim Crow, though he rather implausibly tried to draw a line from Andrew Jackson, Preston Brooks, Stephen Douglas, and Ben Tillman to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. And odd as it may be to imagine now, Lee almost certainly never voted for a Republican in his life. While biographers have stated that he probably supported the Whigs prior to the party’s demise in 1854, primary source evidence makes it rather apparent that Lee began backing Democrats when the GOP was founded. In the 1856 letter to his wife where he defended slavery, Lee praised Democratic president Franklin Pierce for a speech that criticized not only abolitionists but also the more moderate Republicans. That same year, he expressed his satisfaction that proslavery Democrat James Buchanan had beaten antislavery Republican John C. Fremont. In 1860, he called on Democratic Party nominee, Stephen Douglas, to withdraw from the election and unite the party behind John Breckinridge, the nominee of the “Southern Democratic Party” in order to ensure that “Lincoln be defeated.” In 1866, he blamed the Republican Party for the war. He was ineligible to vote in the 1868 Election due to, in a delicious irony, having his citizenship revoked just before former slaves were granted citizenship. Nonetheless, he cosigned a letter denouncing Republican Reconstruction policies, including black suffrage, which was then circulated by Democrats to drum up support for their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour. 1868 would not be Lee’s year, as he suffered yet enough defeat to Ulysses S. Grant, this time by proxy, when the former Union general crushed Seymour in a landslide. So in sum, Hillary Clinton has supported more Republican candidates for president than Lee did.

D’Souza’s Twitter faux paus is far from isolated. Time and time again, we have seen modern Republicans fall on their sword by supporting or refusing to oppose tributes to the Confederacy. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and D’Souza have tried to have it both ways by supporting the Confederate Flag while claiming that the GOP is still the Party of Lincoln. In recent years, Republican governors such as Bob McDonnell, Nathan Deal and Phil Bryant have declared April “Confederate Heritage Month” or “Confederate History Month.” McDonnell came down with a bad case of corruption charges, and Deal scrubbed the holiday in Georgia after the horrific Charleston Church Shooting. But Bryant was not deterred. Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham supported displaying the flag on Capitol grounds until after the shooting. Jeb Bush claimed that, “The problem with the Confederate flag isn’t the Confederacy,” but rather, “what it began to represent later,” a very odd way of letting the proslavery Democrats who founded the Confederacy off the hook. It is now primarily Republicans who oppose moving Confederate statues and other monuments to museums. Two years ago, liberal columnist, Jonathan Chait, quipped, “Given their investment in this argument [that Democrats are the party of racism], you would think Republicans would be eager to divest themselves from the symbols of slavery and segregation. But far from it.” That same day, Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter and advisor for George W. Bush, remarked, “So the Confederate flag was never a symbol associated with the Republican Party – including in South Carolina, where the flag was first flown over the statehouse in 1962, at the request of Democrats in the state like Governor Fritz Hollings and Representative John A. May. Yet the Republican Party has somehow found a way to get itself attached to this toxic symbol of division and repression.” Wehner is right in one sense. For a Republican to support the Confederate Flag or, especially, retrospectively side with the Confederacy itself is antithetical to the roots of their party. Republicans should be happy to distance themselves as far as possible from the country and political movement that their first president, Abraham Lincoln, defeated. But it did not happen by accident. It happened because many Republicans chose to make it happen, including Wehner’s former boss. While Republican humorist, P.J. O’Rourke, opined that, “my Republican friends would rather hoist the Jolly Roger than fly the rebel flag like a bunch of cement-head biker trash with Nazi face tattoos,” many Republicans have consciously attached themselves to perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Democratic Party’s historic support for slavery. And other conservatives, such as former Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, Michael Medved, Walter Williams, and–wouldn’t you know it?–D’Souza, have gone so far as to claim that black people today are better off due to slavery.

This bizarreness is not limited to the Confederacy either. Andrew Jackson was the first Democratic Party president and, not coincidentally, favored slavery and the Trail of Tears. Again, one would think that every Republican would be clamoring to take Jackson off of the $20 bill and scrub every tribute to him, but one would be wrong. Trump not only dismissed such proposals as political correctness gone mad but has also praised Jackson since then. Ben Carson made similar complaints about even the idea of putting Harriet Tubman’s face alongside Jackson’s. Right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage fumed that dislike of Jackson was proof that “perverted left-wing deviants who have stolen our children from us put hate in their minds about anything white, Christian and male.”

While slavery and Jim Crow laws were both established in America in the 1600s, long predating either the Democratic or the Republican Party, postbellum segregationists were mostly Democrats. If a Republican candidate ran in a statewide Southern election between the end of Reconstruction and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it was usually as a sacrificial lamb. In fact, this allowed Southern Democratic Parties to define themselves as private clubs and circumvent the 15th Amendment to ban black people from voting in their primaries. And, of course, given the Democrats’ strength in the Jim Crow South, whoever won the primary was all but guaranteed to win the general election. As conservatives like D’Souza love to point out, Republicans voted for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as other Reconstruction Era civil rights legislation, at a much higher rate than Democrats. And they usually voted in significantly higher numbers for other civil rights bills compared with Democrats through the 1960s. But D’Souza has called for repealing the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prevent private businesses from discriminating based on race. Ben Shapiro and Jeff Jacoby, two other conservative commentators, have expressed similar views. Senator Rand Paul is on record in the past as having opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. Some conservatives have gone even further. In 2014, the Texas Republican Party called for an outright repeal of the “Voter Rights Act,” which was passed in 1965 with support from 80% of Republican Representatives and over 93% of Republican Senators. In Brown v. Board of Education, former Democratic Party presidential nominee, John W. Davis, defended school segregation, while Republican Attorney General Herbert Brownell argued that it was unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court first began deliberating, its lone Republican Judge Harold Burton was one of the strongest supporters of striking down de jure segregation in public schools. And when another Republican named Earl Warren became the new Chief Justice in the middle of deliberations, he helped bring about a unanimous ruling in favor of desegregation. While conservative Republicans such as Barry Goldwater opposed the decision, the fiercest resistance came primarily from Southern Democrats. Yet Pat Buchanan, a right-wing Republican who pursued the party’s presidential nomination twice, has retrospectively denounced the decision multiple times. Pat Robertson, another ultraconservative and former GOP presidential contender, hinted at opposition to the decision in one of his books, Courting Disaster. Humorously, depressingly, or both, he was flirting with the more explicit opposition of his Democratic Senator father to the ruling. From the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Republican politicians were conflicted on interracial marriage bans, with many opposing them on libertarian grounds, while Democratic politicians, overwhelmingly wanted interracial marriage illegal. States such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New Hampshire never had interracial marriage bans and remained Republican strongholds well into the twentieth century. Massachusetts, the site of abolitionists’ successful campaign to legalize interracial marriage in 1843, voted for Republican presidential candidates in fourteen straight elections and remained mostly Republican until the late 1920s. In both of his presidential runs, Dwight Eisenhower managed a clean sweep of every state where interracial marriage was legal at the time. Yet according to a 2011 Gallup poll, Democrats were eleven percentage points more likely than Republicans to support interracial marriage. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed Democrats as being twenty-one percentage points more likely than Republicans to see increased interracial marriage as positive for society and half as likely to see it as bad for society.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not bring up Japanese American internment. Internment was supported and implemented by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, a bête noire of free market conservatives. Dixiecrats such as John Rankin, Tom Stewart, and Martin Dies backed calls from West Coast racists to permanently remove/quarantine Japanese Americans. On the West Coast, Washington State Democrats Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson generally voted for black civil rights. But they also supported Japanese American internment and other similar anti-Japanese discrimination with great relish. To be sure, the Republican Party was not a bastion of opposition to internment; Earl Warren’s support for the policy as governor would to haunt him in later years. But the few politicians that joined forces with a hodgepodge of liberals and far leftists to oppose internment were primarily Republicans, including Senator Robert Taft and Mayors Harry Cain and Ralph Carr. When the Supreme Court upheld internment, Democratic Justices Frank Murphy and Robert Jackson dissented, but they were joined by Republican Justice Owen Roberts and opposed by other Democratic judges. Yet during his run for president, Trump stated that internment might have been a good policy. Michelle Malkin, still a prominent conservative pundit, wrote a book in 2004 largely dedicated to the argument that internment had been fair and reasonable.

The behavior of many modern conservatives when it comes to historical policies of bigoted Democrats may seem strange. But as a historian, it makes my job of arguing that the parties switched much easier.


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The Trump Presidency and LGBT Rights: A Study in Managing Expectations

On April 22, 2016, an article in The New York Times–not exactly a pro-Trump paper– carried the headline, “Donald Trump’s More Accepting Views on LGBT Rights Set Him Apart in GOP.” The article went on to describe what it saw as the soon-to-be presidential nominee’s moderately liberal positions on LGBT rights in contrast to other leading Republicans. The article did acknowledge that, “Of course, Mr. Trump is not as embracing of gay rights as the Democratic candidates are; he said during this campaign that he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, a position he has held since at least 2000, when he briefly flirted with a bid for the presidency.” Nonetheless, the thrust of the article was to portray Trump as a new kind of Republican on LGBT rights. In fairness, Trump did sound a more moderate note on LGBT rights than past Republican nominees and many prominent Republicans. But that is not saying a whole lot. LGBT rights began being discussed by presidential candidates in the 1970s. By that point, the GOP had shifted to being the more conservative party on civil rights. Had they been operating in today’s political climate, many past Republican nominees, presidents, and other politicians would likely have held liberal positions on gay rights given their stances on other civil rights issues. It is difficult to say this for sure, but we saw glimpses of this possibility with Republican politicians who defended gay rights in the 1970s, such as Charles Goodell and Edward Brooke, as well as elderly, retired GOPers who spoke up for same-sex marriage more recently, such as Daniel J. Evans, William G. Milliken, Lowell Weicker, Alan Simpson, Thomas Kean, and Jim Thompson. And as I pointed out here, saying that Trump is less anti-LGBT than people such as Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney is akin to saying that a colonoscopy is better than a fecal transplant. Additionally, by the time that the aforementioned article was written, Trump had already stated that he would consider appointing Supreme Court judges to reverse marriage equality. And just as the article was published, he declared support for a “states’ rights” position on transgender bathroom use.

Most LGBT voters apparently agreed with my assessment of Trump; he won only 14% of LGBT voters, almost twice as few as John McCain, nine percentage points less than Bush, Jr., and eight less than Romney. Trump did worse with LGBT voters than he did with women voters, Hispanic voters, or Jewish voters. Despite this, however, Trump’s anti-LGBT views have gone largely unmentioned by the media. Many gay Republicans have touted Trump as an ally. And last month, even Washington Post columnist, Jennifer Rubin, one of the president’s most strident critics on the Right, incorrectly wrote, “Ironically, Trump has been supportive of gay marriage in the past and never made it an issue in the campaign. So the Trump base doesn’t even have Trump on its side on this one.” But as his recent tweet on transgender soldiers shows, he has been quite bad on LGBT rights thus far. So, six months into his presidency, let’s recap some of the lowlights of his record on LGBT rights:

  1. In addition to having Mike Pence as his vice president, he has hired a slew of people with anti-LGBT records as Cabinet secretaries and Cabinet-level officials, including but not limited to Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, and Nikki Haley.
  2. Rescinded President Obama’s executive order allowing transgender public school students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity
  3. Praised, kissed up to, and pursued alliances with Russia, where being openly gay is effectively illegal, and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a capital crime.
  4. Turned a blind eye to the ongoing anti-gay genocide in Chechnya and refused to offer asylum to gay Chechen refugees
  5. Appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, where he promptly dissented to support anti-gay discrimination in Arkansas’s marriage law.
  6. Nominated other anti-gay individuals as judges for lower courts.
  7. Shown little-to-no interest in passing anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT Americans.
  8. Rescinded key enforcement provisions of Obama’s executive order that banned discrimination by federal contractors based on gender and sexual orientation.
  9. Announced, on the anniversary of President Harry Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces, that transgender individuals are banned from serving in the military.
  10. Literally during the time between me writing a draft of this blog and posting it, Trump has allowed the Department of Justice to file an amicus brief stating that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is in direct opposition to the stance of the EEOC, as well as a recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, and represents a departure from the Obama Administration’s position of neutrality on the meaning of Title VII.

It ought to be clear by now that the narrative of Trump the LGBT Rights Supporter is just as imaginary as Trump the Populist or Trump the Tough Guy. Yes, he is less anti-LGBT than George W. Bush was. It would be impossible for any president in 2017 not to be. Hell, you could have made Ted Cruz president, and he wouldn’t have been as anti-LGBT in 2017 as Bush was. But Trump’s LGBT rights record cannot be judged on him being less homophobic than a right-wing former Texas governor was ten years ago. Rather, we must ask, is he at least as supportive as our previous president? Are his positions on LGBT rights liberal for a politician now? Clearly, he fails to pass muster when judged by these criteria. If there was ever a time when he deserved the benefit of the doubt from LGBT rights activists, that time is gone. Trump is no more a friend to LGBT people than he is to women, racial minorities, immigrants, disabled people, or Muslims.

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Gun Control, Murder Rates, and Correlation vs Causality

The National Rifle Association is an impossible group to defend. Their CEO and executive vice president thinks the wrong side won the Civil War. They fall silent when an innocent black man with a legally obtained weapon gets shot by a cop. They are shameless flunkies for the Right who lump supporting gun rights in with being anti-minority, anti-woman, anti-LGBT, and pro-Trump. And instead of letting anti-gun control arguments stand on their own, considerable merits, they try to shift blame for mass shootings onto the video game industry  and mentally ill people. I bring all of this up, because a recent anti-NRA protest by organizers of the Women’s March also ended up being a protest for gun control. I am proud that I participated in a Women’s March in my hometown of Atlanta and would gladly do so again. However, the Left has been making what I believe to be a mistake by championing expansive gun control and making this a major issue. One of the most popular arguments for this is that countries with stricter gun laws have lower homicides rates than the U.S. It is certainly true that the U.S. has an unusually high murder rate for an industrialized, Western nation and that many Western nations with lower murder rates have stricter gun laws. But is this cause and effect or merely correlation? To clarify, correlation is when two trends are observed to go together, but they may or not be caused by each other. For example, in pre-1960s America, states where more people drank Coca Cola tended to have more racist laws, while states where more people drank Pepsi tended to have less racist laws. But nobody would argue that Coca Cola consumption caused Mississippi to have government-mandated segregation for longer than Massachusetts. Similarly, ice cream sales, drowning deaths, and riots are all probably more likely to happen in the Summer than in other parts of the year, but nobody thinks that ice cream helps cause drowning or rioting.

This blog post will focus on three countries and consider a piece of gun control legislation in each: the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. All have significantly stricter gun laws and significantly lower murder rates than the United States. Many people argue that this is proof or at least strong evidence that gun control reduces murder. If this is true, then one might expect that the murder rates in these three countries consistently decreased when gun control legislation was enacted. The first country that will be considered is the U.K. In 1997, the U.K. effectively banned ownership of most types of handguns. The following year, the murder rate saw a small decrease from 1.18 per 100,000 to 1.14. But from 1999 to 2003, the murder rate consistently increased, peaking at  1.79. After 2003, the murder rate began declining. But it was not until 2009 that the murder rate reached a level lower than what it had been before the handgun ban. Thus, it is difficult to conclude from statistics that Britain’s homicide rate was lowered by dictating what types of guns people can buy, and a strong case can be made that the data suggests the opposite result.

In 1969, Canada introduced “non-restricted,” “restricted,” and “prohibited” categories of firearms. That year, a total of 391 people were murdered in Canada. In 1970, the number jumped to 467. It continued to increase to 473 in 1971, 521 in 1972, 546 in 1973, 600 in 1974, and 701 in 1975. While it is impossible to prove that gun control caused this sharp increase, these statistics demonstrate that it certainly did not reduce the murder rate in Canada.

In 1996, a gunman at Port Arthur, Australia engaged in a mass shooting, killing 35 people and wounding 23 others. The Australian government quickly responded to this horrific event with stringent new gun laws. According to The New York Times, “Pushed through by John Howard, the conservative prime minister at the time, the National Firearms Agreement prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles and pump shotguns in all but unusual cases. It tightened licensing rules, established a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases, created a national gun registry and instituted a temporary buyback program that removed more than 20 percent of firearms from public circulation.” Going by figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology, the homicide rate remained stable between 1996 and 1997. It dipped somewhat in 1998 and increased somewhat in 1999. The significant drop in homicides often brought up by gun control advocates did not take place until at least the mid 2000s. A case could be made that this means that the National Firearms Agreement took awhile to make a serious impact. But it also makes any causal link far more difficult to trace.

None of the evidence that I have offered here proves that gun control is ineffective at reducing murder. As I myself stated, correlation does not equal causality. It can certainly still be argued that, all other things being equal, gun control makes people safer. Longtime readers know my view on the matter: I support requiring criminal background checks and passage of a safety test (similar to a driver’s test) before buying guns but oppose most other gun control measures for a variety of reasons. That said, one cannot insist that the lower homicide rates of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia prove that gun control works yet at the same time dismiss the statistics laid out in this post as irrelevant.


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Buy This Product Or Else: Why The Individual Mandate for Health Insurance Must End

America has a tendency to go through one bad health care policy after another. The broken pre-Obama system of out-of-control insurance costs and unfunded mandates begat the ill-advised Affordable Care Act, which begat the ever elusive American Health Care Act and all of its associated defects that have the magical ability to unite Tea Partiers, moderate Republicans, Trump supporters, and liberals in disgust. I wrote on this site years ago about why I dislike the Affordable Care Act, but to recap and expand: it involves too much government control of the health care system, soaks the middle class, risks being a backdoor to nanny state policies such as New York City’s short-lived, infamous “big gulp ban,” and may well have led to more unemployment by requiring businesses to provide insurance for their workers. The act certainly did some good things, such as providing necessary medical care to low income Americans and preventing insurers from charging extra for preexisting conditions. But changes like these could have been accomplished without most of the bad aspects of the ACA. For someone who opposes national health insurance, this is a very much a “pick your poison” thought experiment, but a system of single payer health insurance would actually be preferable to this system of mandatory employer-provided health insurance. Under a single payer system, the government would provide insurance directly instead of forcing employers to do so, preventing layoffs or reduced hiring. Unemployed people would have easier access to insurance than they do now, and the costs of the program would not be hidden by passing them onto corporations. To be clear, I do not support national health insurance, but if the United States is determined to have it, the best system is probably single payer. But there is another key problem with the Affordable Care Act, which the Republican bill at least attempts to remedy in spite of its myriad of serious flaws: the individual mandate, which requires everyone to buy health insurance whether they want it or not.

Before getting into detail about why I agree with conservatives who oppose the individual mandate, I should point out that a significant amount of the right-wing opposition to individual mandates seems to be motivated by a desire to disagree with Obama on everything. In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich favored an individual mandate as part of a right-wing alternative to the Clinton’s proposed health care bill. In 2006, Mitt Romney signed a bill requiring Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance. Robert Moffit, a health care analyst for the right-wing Heritage Foundation, attended the signing and praised the bill. In a 2012 piece attempting to argue that “Romneycare” and “Obamacare” were radically different, Ann Coulter revealingly admitted, “Until ObamaCare, mandatory private health insurance — as Romney pushed — was considered the free market alternative to the Democrats’ piecemeal socialization of the entire medical industry.” Nonetheless, even if many conservatives supported individual mandates in the past and oppose it now because Obama supported it, that does not mean that individual mandates are a good policy.

The basic problem with the ACA’s individual mandate is that it is inconsistent with individual freedom. In a free society, consumers ought to have the right to choose whether or not to purchase goods and services without the State making the choice for them. And part of living in a free society is that sometimes, consumers will have the knowledge and financial means to make the right choice and still make the wrong one. Sometimes, adults buy houses on a fault line. Sometimes, adults smoke cigarettes. And they should be allowed to do so, provided that they are made aware of potential consequences. The same principle applies to buying insurance. Should people who otherwise cannot afford to buy insurance be provided with tax credits and vouchers to be able to buy it? Absolutely. Should parents be required to buy insurance for their children? Again, absolutely. But adults also should have the right to choose not to buy insurance if they think that they are wealthy or healthy enough not to need it. It is certainly foolish for someone who can afford insurance not to purchase it, but as stated above, people a right to make foolish decisions as long as they are not directly hurting anyone else. To reiterate, there are many , many, many problems with the American Health Care Act. But the proposed legislation actually does make good attempts to incentivize people to voluntarily buy insurance while removing the individual mandate and avoiding the problem of some people driving up costs by waiting to buy insurance until after getting sick. The AHCA would allow insurers to charge people extra if they go more than 63 days without having insurance, then attempt to buy it. This provision is problematic given that the AHCA will make it more difficult for some people to buy insurance, especially if they are between jobs. In fact, I would be unwilling to vote for the AHCA as currently written. But allowing people to chose not to buy insurance while charging them extra if they try to buy it at a later time is, in and of itself, a good policy.

There is a common argument in favor of individual insurance mandates that must be addressed. Some people, including Newt Gingrich, have likened it to mandatory car insurance. This comparison, however, fails to hold water, because car accidents are very likely to seriously impact other drivers. And there is no way to prevent this from happening short of entirely eliminating car accidents. Thus, car insurance is required, not for the welfare of the person who crashes their car, but for the welfare of other innocent drivers who may be impacted by said crash. On the other hand, if someone suffers a heart attack, it is unlikely to directly impact anyone else in the same way that a car accident is. An uninsured person seeking medical care may drive up costs for everyone else, but as mentioned earlier, there are ways of addressing that cost without mandatory insurance. Freedom from nonessential government coercion and access to affordable, quality health care should never be treated as mutually exclusive or pitted against each other in a zero sum game.

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Racial Profiling Must End

There is no way to sugarcoat what happened recently in Minnesota: Jeronimo Yanez quite literally got away with murder. For reasons that I am still struggling to fully understand, Yanez was acquitted on manslaughter charges. This is despite the fact that: 1) Castile was NOT involved in a robbery, contrary to what the cops thought or said they thought when they pulled him over; 2) He warned Yanez that he had a gun but would not reach for it; 3) He was complying with instructions by trying to remove his wallet from his pocket. I do not know if the jurors who voted to acquit were motivated by racism. One white juror stated that she and other white jurors talked to the two black members of the jury and concluded that Castile had not been racially profiled leading to the shooting. But regardless of the jurors’  motivation, the verdict was asinine and unconscionable. The fact that the Twin Cities and the surrounded suburbs have not erupted in riots probably does speak to relatively liberal attitudes and lower racial tensions in Minnesota compared with the country in general. Had this shooting and acquittal happened in, say, Baltimore, St. Louis, or even Milwaukee, particularly during the Summer, it is hard to imagine that there would not have been large-scale rioting. At the same time, twelve people egregiously failed to do their duty and bring a murderer to justice, despite the unambiguous evidence in front of them. And this case has demolished the frequent claim that complying with police instructions automatically guarantees the safety of civilians. But I believe that the shooting of Philando Castile underscores the importance of having a discussion about another matter: the urgent need to ban racial profiling.

Prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, we had a string of three presidents who all said pretty much exactly the right things about racial profiling by government officials but did not spend a significant amount of political capital to pass legislation against it. I am a strong admirer of Obama, am very tepid about Clinton, and consider Bush to have been a terrible president. That does not change the fact that all of them denounced racial profiling yet failed to adequately push for the necessary reforms. A key reason for this is probably 9/11. By 2000, racial profiling had become a high profile political issue. If people thought about racial profiling, it was generally, though not always, racial profiling against African Americans and Latino Americans by cops. And there was considerable bipartisan support for trying to end it. Bush and Gore staked out relatively similar positions on the issue, and by August of 2001, Congress was holding hearings on federal anti-racial profiling legislation. Once and future NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly testified about how racial profiling was inexcusable and damaging to law enforcement and warned that if local police departments failed to adequately curb it, federal intervention might be needed.

A month later, 9/11 happened, effectively ruining the possibility of a federal ban on racial profiling for years to come. Suddenly, more people were thinking about the issue of profiling Arab Americans at airports, and some evidence suggests that a significant number of people who generally oppose racial profiling make an exception for Arab Americans.  The Bush and Obama Administrations both issued directives against racial profiling by federal officials, but these orders could be reversed by Trump and do not apply to state and local police. Thus, laws on racial profiling vary by state and city. Many states and cities, including Minnesota, have explicitly banned its use by law enforcement. Many others have not. There are a host of reasons why racial profiling should be ended. It is blatantly discriminatory and unjust under any circumstances. There is no excuse to treat someone as a possible criminal based partly or exclusively on their race. But as wrong as it is when a white person turns the other way because they see a black person, it is even worse when law enforcement officials racially profile, because it necessarily involves coercion by agents of the State. When law enforcement racially profiles, nonwhite Americans can be followed, stopped, interrogated, and searched by police when white Americans would not be. Racial profiling, which has existed since the days of slavery, is yet another example of government mistreatment of minorities. It is of specious practical benefit to investigations. Supporters of racial profiling would have encouraged law enforcement to profile Crystal Griner and David Bailey and ignore James Hodgkinson. As I explained in a blog post back in February, “In 1901, President William McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York. Secret Service Agent George Foster became preoccupied by the presence of a six-and-a half foot tall black man named James Parker. In fact, he was so preoccupied by the perceived threat from Parker that he failed to notice the white man standing in front of Parker, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz, as it turned out, fatally shot McKinley. Admittedly, Parker did get involved in the shooting—by punching Czolgosz and wrestling him to the ground.” And racial profiling poisons police-community relations, making everyone less safe.

But the murder of Castile highlights the fact that racial profiling can literally be a matter of life and death. Audio evidence from a police scanner shows that Castile was stopped because cops thought he resembled “one of our suspects, just ’cause of the wide-set nose.” Essentially, Castile was a black man, possibly had a wide-set nose, and that was considered enough of a reason for him to possibly be the same person who robbed a store and a justification for pulling him over. This is an important point to unpack. If a twenty-five year old, 5’10”, burly black man with a baseball cap and a chunk of his right ear missing robs a bank, and police see someone matching that description driving down the road, most people would agree that pulling him over and questioning him would not constitute racial profiling. But a black man with a wide-set nose is a very basic description that could include any number of people, making it fairly apparent that Castile was racially profiled. Had Castile not been racially profiled, he would have never been pulled over, which means that Yanez would have never shot him. Thus, Governor Mark Dayton’s statement that Castile would still be alive had he not been black was quite true. One of the defenses of racial profiling has been that it supposedly represents only a minor inconvenience to the people profiled. (While some nonwhite Americans have unfortunately defended racial profiling, it is probably mostly white people who think being profiled based on race is normally just a minor inconvenience.) Therefore, the argument goes, innocent people of color who get profiled partly or entirely because of their race should grit their teeth and bear it for the sake of preventing crime. But as the shooting of Castile demonstrates, racial profiling can be downright deadly. Once an innocent person is identified as a potential criminal, there is an increased possibility that either the police officer or civilian will feel on edge and that tensions will escalate to a deadly conclusion. And if police are encouraged to profile black people, than it will be very unsurprising if they end up more likely to get nervous and shoot black people. Other people have made similar points in the past, but hopefully, more people understand now just how dangerous racial profiling is.

In March of this year, the End Racial Profiling Act was yet again introduced in Congress. The bill prohibits the use of racial profiling by law enforcement, which it defines as “the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to any degree, on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities or in deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement activity following the initial investigatory procedure, except when there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links a person with a particular characteristic described in this paragraph to an identified criminal incident or scheme.” This is generally a good definition, but the legislation must make clear that when a criminal has been identified as being of a certain race, that does not give police the right to label anyone with some vague physical resemblance as a suspect. Rather, there needs to be clearly defined parameters to ensure that people who are stopped and questioned based on their appearance actually match a detailed description of the suspect or that there is other strong evidence linking that individual to the crime. Simply identifying the suspect as a black man with “wide-set nose” should not cut it. If principled conservatives and libertarians find aspects of the proposed legislation too bureaucratic, they should propose their own anti-racial profiling legislation. But the time is long past for us to take decisive steps to at least try to end racial profiling in America.

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When Loyalty is a One Way Street

When a radical left-wing gunman named James Hodgkinson opened fire at a baseball field on June 14 and wounded Steve Scalise and several other people, it was Crystal Griner and David Bailey, two Capitol police officers on Scalise’s security detail, who took down Hodgkinson. This was despite the fact that Griner and Bailey were among the people wounded. And as has been getting a lot of attention lately, Griner and Bailey are black, and Griner is gay. And as some people have pointed out–much to the anger of many conservatives–Scalise has a very anti-gay record. Like many conservative politicians, Scalise backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage until the momentum started shifting toward gay rights. After that, he began advocating that states should be allowed to decide the issue for themselves, so that states such as Louisiana could continue banning gay marriage. According to the Washington Blade, “Earning a ‘0’ on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional scorecard, Scalise voted against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and hate crimes protection legislation. In the last Congress, Scalise was among the 130 co-sponsors of the First Amendment Defense Act, a federal ‘religious freedom’ bill seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

As a member of House Republican leadership, he’s responsible for the lack of votes on pro-LGBT legislation on the House floor. When Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment upholding President Obama’s 2014 executive order against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination, Scalise was reportedly among House leaders who convinced seven Republicans to switch their votes to ensure the measure would fail.” He was also alleged to have spoken to a white supremacist gathering in the early 2000s, a claim he did not outright deny.  Nonetheless, Griner and Bailey did not for a moment let Scalise’s bigotry prevent them from risking their lives to save him.

Let me state unequivocally that I want Scalise, Griner, Bailey, and the other shooting victims, Matt Mika and Zack Barth, to make a full recovery as quickly as possible. And I am not trying to claim that because Scalise is homophobic and possibly racist, he somehow deserved to be shot. I am simply pointing out that Griner and Bailey showed a loyalty to Scalise that he has never shown to them. They risked their own lives to save the life of a man who has treated people like them with disdain. Of course, this is nothing new. Black people have fought on behalf of the United States in every war that the United States has been involved in, despite the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Similarly, gay people long served in the military despite first being outright banned and later forced to stay in the closet under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” not to mention being denied a slew of rights in society at large. Consider that homosexuality was illegal nationwide until the 1960s and illegal in some states until 2003. Then consider the brave service of gay and lesbian soldiers during conflicts such as World War II. Yet time after time, many people have refused to give nonwhite and LGBT law enforcement and military personnel the same respect that they give other members of law enforcement and the military. From the Continental Army using slaves to help fight the British, to African American soldiers being treated worse in the United States than German POWs, to LGBT soldiers and veterans being booed when they try to talk about discrimination, it is a tragedy as continuous as it is horrifying. Nonwhite cops and soldiers end up fighting and sometimes dying partly to protect people who treat LGBT and nonwhite Americans as second-class citizens. The same, it ought to be said, is true of female cops and soldiers. Women in law enforcement and the military are forced to endure sexism both on the job and in society at large.

Of course, every once in awhile, when it’s convenient, bigots honor people from marginalized groups who risk their lives to protect them. Griner and her wife, Tiffany Dyer, just got invited to the White House. This is despite the fact our president promised last year to consider appointing judges who could make their marriage once again illegal in some states, and Pence wants business owners to be able to refuse them service. There is no word yet on whether or not Pence attempted to persuade the couple to enter an “ex-gay ministry” or whether or not he opposes openly gay people being allowed to join law enforcement or just the military. But at the end of the day, P.R. dictates that people like Trump and Pence sometimes honor brave and individuals from groups that they normally denigrate. Perhaps Scalise will be so grateful for having his life saved that he will change positions on civil rights. Or maybe he is not self-aware enough to do that. If he is not, he is far from alone. And perhaps a white baby boomer going on a shooting spree and being stopped by two black cops will cause supporters of racial profiling to reevaluate their views. But again, I am not holding my breath.

Postscript: In my next blog post, I will be discussing racial profiling in more detail and how it relates to the Philando Castile shooting.

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Why I Can’t Handle Handel

There’s a famous saying that goes “All Politics is Local.” I am not sure that this is true, but it does come to mind with the topic of this blog post. As many of you probably know, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is in the midst of a tumultuous election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. This election is getting far more national attention than a Georgia Congressional race would typically get. Off the top of my head, the last one to get this amount of coverage might have been John Lewis vs. Julian Bond–in 1986. In a fact that may surprise some readers of this blog who envision me inveighing against examples of Southern bigotry such as the Confederate Flag from somewhere in Manhattan, I have lived in the Atlanta area all of my life and am a registered voter in the 6th District. In contrast to the overall city proper of Atlanta and the counties of Fulton and DeKalb, which are very diverse and vote heavily for Democrats, the 6th District is heavily Republican. Despite this, Trump did not do so well there. To put this in perspective, the district has been represented by Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and current senior Senator Johnny Isakson, since 1979. Before that, its Democratic Representative, Jack Flynt, had a segregationist record. From 2000 to 2012, Republican presidential candidates garnered anywhere from 61 to 70% of the vote there. So it was a striking departure when Trump came in at 48%, beating Clinton by a measly 1%. I am generally of the mindset that Democrats should give up on winning statewide elections in most former Confederate states–excluding obviously Virginia and perhaps Florida and North Carolina–for the time being. The Democratic Party was a bastion of bigotry and persecution when it did well in the South, and Democrats who run for statewide office here tend to have very watered down positions on civil rights and civil liberties issues. Congressional races, however, are an entirely different matter. Representative John Lewis of Georgia’s 5th District is appropriately called the “Conscience of Congress” for his tireless support of civil rights causes, and I would pit his record against that of any Representative from New York.

As a young man who became a public figure fairly recently, Ossoff obviously does not have the same kind of record that we can look to. Nevertheless, he has included a reference to discrimination based on sexual orientation in his official platform and stated that, “I oppose any legislation or policy that allows discrimination against LGBT Americans, and I oppose this [‘religious freedom’] executive order, which undermines the intent of Congress in order to allow more money into our political system.” He also believes that, “Same-sex couples should have the same rights as every couple in every context. There’s no excuse for discrimination in federal law or state law, and it’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Washington that we’re still having these debates.” He has promised that, “If I’m elected, I’ll be a public, outspoken, unashamed ally of the LGBT community with a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech, discrimination or scape-goating — no questions asked.” And this weekend, he is speaking at an LGBT rights march in Atlanta. Which brings us to Karen Handel. Where does she stand on LGBT rights? In a recent debate with Ossoff, she talked about trying to balance religious freedom with nondiscrimination, which in practice is generally a warning sign that a politician is not very supportive of LGBT rights. But to really see how abysmal Handel is on LGBT rights issues, we need to go back to 2010.

In 2010, Georgia was in the midst of a gubernatorial election. In the Democratic Party camp, the pickings were slim. I recall sending a questionnaire to all of the Democrats running in the primary and never receiving a single reply. In fairness, I received a reply from one of these candidates’ staffers explaining that the candidate was out of town and did not have access to a computer. I guess he is still out of town. But if most of the Democrats were slim pickings, the Republicans were by and large toxic pickings. The GOP primary essentially devolved into a game of “any gays you can bash, I can bash better.” Current Governor Nathan Deal and Karen Handel were particularly vigorous at playing this game. Deal accused Handel of having a “liberal gay rights record,” including being a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, supporting gay adoption, and favoring domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. So how did Handel respond to these claims? She denied ever being a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, despite a paper trial suggesting otherwise.  She also insisted that she opposed gay adoption and domestic partner benefits for gay couples. These days, Handel is more cagey. Her team apparently ignored multiple requests for interviews with The Georgia Voice regarding her views. However, she has shown that she will  throw LGBT people under the bus at the drop of a hat. Some people will compare this to Obama publicly supporting gay marriage in 1996, claiming to oppose it in 2004 and 2008, and pivoting back to support in 2012. There are parallels, but the situations are not equivalent. Obama’s overall gay rights platform during his “lukewarm period” was still far more progressive than Handel’s. He favored gay adoption, ENDA, and repealing DOMA and DADT. Handel, on the other hand, went out of her way to present herself as anti-LGBT rights in general. And she has shown little interest in trying to atone for her behavior the way that Obama did. She does not deserve to hold any public office again.

I would like to close this blog post with a quote from Ossoff’s campaign website:

“Our Constitutional rights, our civil liberties, and our privacy are sacred.

Throughout our history, patriots, abolitionists, civil libertarians, suffragettes, and civil rights heroes have made huge sacrifices to advance liberty and justice for all. We should continue striving together toward a more perfect union.

Jon will fight for our civil liberties to ensure that every American is free to determine the course of their own life so long as they don’t harm others.

Jon will oppose cynical attempts by politicians to win elections by undermining Americans’ hard-fought, sacred voting rights.

Jon’s mother is an immigrant who became a small business owner, an American citizen, and a champion for women’s rights. America needs a strong border policy that protects American citizens and American jobs. We should welcome those strivers who, like our own forebears, seek the opportunity to work hard, play by the rules, and build better lives in America.

Jon believes it is a violation of core American principles to slander entire religious groups and that it’s unconstitutional to ban anyone from entering our country on religious grounds.

As our representative in Congress, Jon will fight tirelessly against discrimination, hate speech, or violence against Americans on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or place of birth.

Jon will stand up for due process and equal treatment under law for all of us, regardless of race or income level. Jon will honor law enforcement and stand up for Georgians who are mistreated by the criminal justice system.

Jon will oppose legislation or executive action that undermines Americans’ access to private communications and strong encryption.”

Now that is a platform that we should all be able to get behind!

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