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The racist history of the filibuster – posted 3/30/2021

March 30, 2021 1 comment

There is no doubt that Senator Mitch McConnell is a shrewd political operator. Winning at all costs is his signature approach to politics. But I have to say I was surprised by his response to a reporter’s question on March 23 about the filibuster. McConnell responded:

“It has no racial history. None. There’s no dispute about that.”

Possibly McConnell was talking about the origins of the filibuster but what he said was absolutely misleading. Historically, the filibuster has been the primary device used by Southern senators to block civil rights legislation dating back 100 years.

The filibuster, a Senate rule that now creates a 60 vote threshold for major legislation, is a procedural maneuver which allows a minority to stop almost all legislation. It is highly ironic that Republicans now tout the filibuster as protecting minority rights because its history is as a racist tool of white supremacy.

The most famous filibuster ever was the filibuster over the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It went on for 60 days. The Civil Rights Act protected voting rights, banned discrimination in public facilities and enforced equal opportunity in employment.

In the debate, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia spoke for over 14 hours. At the time, the Senate needed a two-thirds vote to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. That was one of the very rare occasions where the Senate obtained a vote for cloture to end a filibuster so there could be a vote on the bill itself.

In 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina staged the longest continuous filibuster in U.S. history. He spoke for over 24 hours to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a bill designed to protect the rights of African Americans to vote. In this instance, Thurmond failed, as the bill passed two hours after his speaking marathon.

Probably the most insidious racist use of the filibuster was its use against anti-lynching bills that came before Congress. Over several decades, starting just before 1920, Congress would consider nearly 200 anti-lynching bills. Not one bill ever passed nor did they get votes on the merits. The filibuster was the main tool preventing a vote on all civil rights bills. Writing in the Atlantic, David Litt described the Senate obstruction:

“First, to slow the proceedings, they demanded that the Senate journal be read out loud each day in full, something technically required by the chamber’s rules but rarely enforced. Then the filibusterers began offering amendments to the journal during the reading. These could be as meaningless as inserting a senator’s middle name or changing a single word in a speech. Yet the vote on each of these amendments could be filibustered.”

The problem for the anti-lynching side was that the filibuster sidetracked all other legislative priorities. Consistently, senators ended up caving in and giving up on anti-lynching bills. They did not want to sacrifice all other priorities.

There was awareness in Congress about lynching. Thousands of African-Americans were lynched in the 1890’s. Between 1901 and 1929, more than 1200 African-Americans were lynched in the South. The NAACP led the anti-lynching legislative campaign. Their report, “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919”, educated the public.

The anti-lynching campaign was led by NAACP Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson and Atlanta civil rights activist Walter White. Rep. Leonidas Dyer, a Congressman from St. Louis, first brought an anti-lynching bill forward in 1918. Dyer argued that lynching and state’s refusal to prosecute the perpetrators violated victims’ Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Advocates were never able to overcome Southern parliamentary maneuvers, including threats that the filibuster would shut down all Senate business.

In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. The resolution noted that 99% of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by state or local officials. The resolution did not mention the role of the filibuster which was the procedural mechanism utilized to avoid even a vote on anti-lynching bills.

The filibuster was also used to obstruct bills outlawing use of the poll tax in Southern states. Millions of African-Americans and poor whites in the South were disenfranchised. In the 1940 election, in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina 264,419 votes were cast out of a population of 9,300,000. Huge numbers could not afford to vote.

In 1946, the Senate came close to passing anti-poll tax legislation but a cloture vote on the filibuster which then required a two-thirds supermajority failed. The bill never got a vote.

The poll tax lasted until 1964 when it was ended by a constitutional amendment.

The filibuster idea goes back to 1790 when Senators from Virginia and South Carolina filibustered to prevent the location of the first Congress in Philadelphia. Possibly this is what Sen. McConnell was referring to because the filibuster had use beyond race. It is also possible that McConnell was referring to Sen. John Calhoun’s actions in 1841 when Calhoun organized opposition to the chartering of the U.S. Bank. Still, Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery, used the filibuster to protect Southern interests.

The fact that the filibuster had other utilities beyond race does not erase its extensive use for over 100 years to reinforce racism in the American way of life. It has been used in the service of our most dishonorable tradition.

The Democrats should ignore McConnell’s threats about how filibuster reform would produce “nuclear winter”. The filibuster has an ignoble history, thwarting civil rights legislation. It has zero constitutional foundation. It is simply a clever device blocking majority rule. The idea Democrats could get 60 votes for any of their legislative goals is an impossible dream. If the Democrats want to realize any part of their agenda beyond the Rescue Plan, they must end the filibuster.

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Spring thaw – posted 3/26/2021

March 26, 2021 Leave a comment

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History shows another way to look at the events of January 6 – posted 3/23/2021

March 23, 2021 Leave a comment

After the events of January 6, most media commentary highlighted the uniqueness of an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The War of 1812, when the British attacked Washington DC, was often cited as the best parallel.

I would like to suggest a different way of looking at January 6. In American history, white mob violence has recurred when white supremacists have believed they were losing political control of the government. These mobs have been unwilling to accept multiracial democracy and, in the past, their violence worked successfully to restore white power. This pattern has gone on for over 150 years.

Republicans have tried to downplay January 6 and simply want the public to get over it. Some Republicans argue they did nothing wrong. Many Democrats have seen the January 6 insurrectionists as victims of Trumpian misinformation. Neither of these perspectives offer a clear lens on January 6.

Before January 6, Trump had argued the presidential election was stolen. His claim was that he was a victim of voter fraud. Trump and his lawyers particularly mentioned voter fraud in large metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit. These were all big cities in swing states with high concentrations of African-American voters.

The narrative of the former president was that he got legitimate votes and that Biden got votes that were not legitimate. Trump’s inference was that African-American votes should not have been counted or were counted wrongly.

The insurrection was about stopping or delaying certification of Biden’s election as President which was slated to happen on January 6. It is hard to forget the Confederate flags paraded inside the Capitol or the gallows and noose constructed outside.

Trump’s arguments are the exact same arguments white supremacists repeatedly have made since the later part of the 19th century during and after Reconstruction. Preventing African-American votes has been a long-time central goal. While Trump did not win this time, the actions of his supporters were absolutely consistent with the white supremacist use of mob violence to overturn election results.

After the Civil War, Black Americans in the South served both in Congress and in state legislatures. Black Republicans and their white allies formed a fusionist politics that was defeating white supremacists at the polls. Unwilling to accept electoral defeat, white supremacist forces resorted to mob violence.

The Ku Klux Klan first emerged in the late 1860’s to oppose politically active Blacks and their white allies. The Klan was followed by other paramilitary groups like the Red Shirts and the White League. Voter intimidation and making it impossible for Black people to vote was their main project.

White mob violence forced African-Americans and their white allies out of power. The South returned to control by white supremacists and the South came under effective one party totalitarian rule. Black people lost almost all their rights for another 100 years. Poor whites also suffered under the rule of the Southern white power aristocracy.

As noted, the subjugation of African-Americans in the South during and after Reconstruction was extremely violent. In 1876, white supremacists in South Carolina faced a daunting challenge. To quote Benjamin Tillman, a white leader:

“In my state there were 135,000 negro voters or negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters. With a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it?”

The solution for the South Carolina white supremacists was seizure of the government through mob violence. A straight-up democratic election was unthinkable as the numbers dictated certain loss.

Near Hamburg, South Carolina, a place of Black political power, whites staged a confrontation with Black soldiers. They went to court to seek a court order to take away the Black soldiers’ guns. When these Black soldiers refused to disarm, a much larger white mob attacked, killing seven Black men. The event became known as the Hamburg massacre. The attack was organized by the Red Shirts, a white supremacist group.

As the 1876 presidential election approached, white terror attacks increased. The white minority in South Carolina stuffed ballot boxes and terrorized Black voters to prevent voting. Democrats took over the state government. The federal government had earlier sent troops into the South to crush the Klan but that willingness declined later in Reconstruction.

Events similar to what happened in Hamburg, South Carolina played out in other parts of the South after the Civil War. In Memphis, Tennessee, Colfax Louisiana, and New Orleans, white mobs rampaged. There was an epidemic of organized raids, lynchings, beatings and burnings.

At the same time, white supremacists organized propaganda campaigns to denigrate Black-led governments in the South. The Black-led governments were labelled corrupt and Blacks were stereotyped as lazy and inept.

The Equal Justice Initiative documented 4075 racial terror lynchings in the Southern states between 1877-1950. Lynching was a widely supported practice used to enforce racial subordination. These events were tolerated by both state and federal authorities. In the period of the late 19th and early 20th century, white mob violence took the form of lynching. Lynchings were often public events where Black people were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking crowds.

All the former Confederate states also instituted poll taxes in the period after the Civil War. Poll taxes were a powerful barrier blocking voting by both African-Americans and poor whites. Poll taxes remained legal until 1964 when the 24th amendment was ratified. In addition, many states instituted literacy tests. Such tests remained legal until 1965 when they were prohibited under the Voting Rights Act.

Until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Jim Crow ruled and Blacks were utterly disenfranchised. Since the 1960’s, voter suppression has continued through felon disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, reducing polling places and early voting and making it harder to vote by mail.

The insurrection of January 6 was just one battle in a very long war between the forces of white supremacy and people of all races and nationalities who seek a multiracial democracy. White supremacy largely represented by the Republican Party now remains determined to suppress voting as a means to maintain their minority rule.

According to the Brennan Center, since Trump’s defeat, Republican lawmakers have proposed 250 voter-restriction bills in 43 states. This is modern-day Jim Crow. In addition to voter suppression, they rely on gerrymandering, dark money and control of the courts. In Orwellian fashion, Republicans are calling their efforts to make it harder to vote “voter integrity”.

In his book, Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “the slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery”. The insurrectionists of January 6 and the Republican Party are the modern-day forces trying to take away our moment in the sun.

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Racism against Asian-Americans is a sickness – posted 3/16/2021

March 16, 2021 Leave a comment

When President Joe Biden delivered his first prime-time speech about the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11, he condemned attacks on Asian-Americans. The attacks have occurred with frequency over the last year and have included physical assaults, vandalism, verbal harassment and murder.

Elderly Asian-Americans and women have particularly been targeted. In the Bay Area, in February, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84 year old immigrant from Thailand was brutally assaulted and shoved to the ground while on a morning walk. He sustained brain hemorrhaging and died.

In April last year, a 39 year old Asian-American woman was doused with a caustic chemical as she took out trash in front of her home in Brooklyn New York. She sustained severe burns to her face, neck, hands and back.

The advocacy organization, Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, logged 2808 first hand accounts of hostile and violent incidents directed against Asian-Americans between March 19, 2020 -December 31, 2020. These occurred in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Examples of the violence abound:

A 67 year old Asian-American man from San Francisco was standing in an aisle in a hardware store when suddenly he was struck from behind. Video surveillance at the store verified the incident in which a white male used his bent elbow to strike the man’s upper back. The white guy launched a verbal tirade saying “Shut up, you Monkey!”, “F— you, Chinaman”, “Go back to China” and “Stop bringing the Chinese virus here”.

On March 9, a stranger approached an 83 year old Asian-American woman who was walking on a sidewalk near her home in Westchester, New York. The stranger cocked his head and then spit in her face. He then punched her in the nose, knocking her unconscious and causing extensive bleeding.

On February 3, another stranger approached a 61 year old Filipino-American, Noel Quintana, on the New York City subway and slashed his face from cheek to cheek with a box cutter. “Nobody came, nobody helped, nobody made a video”, he said.

While it is hard to know what is going on in the mind of those carrying out the assaults, there is now a well-established pattern directed against Asian-Americans. Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director of the Asian-American Federation, a collection of New York City non-profits, has said “The attacks are random and they are fast and furious.”

For many urban Asian-Americans, the effects of the attacks are tangible. People are afraid to leave their homes. They are afraid to go to the grocery store or to travel alone on public transportation. They change their travel route out of fear. Peoples’ sense of personal safety has been eroded.

Another dimension is the racist bullying of Asian-American youth during the pandemic. More Asian-American children have stayed home as they have also been targets of harassment, shunning and cyberbullying.

While America has a long xenophobic tradition with extensive scapegoating of Asians in the past, I think former President Donald Trump bears a high degree of personal responsibility for the anti-Asian violence. He repeatedly called the coronavirus the “China flu” and the “Kung flu”.

Blaming China for the spread of the virus was a form of scapegoating. It was a convenient form of blame-shifting. The “China virus” rhetoric obscured the Trump Administration’s disastrous mis-handling of the pandemic which has led to countless needless deaths.

Identifying the coronavirus with a nationality is a dangerous and irresponsible characterization. The origins of the virus are still murky but the conspiracy theory accusing China of manufacturing the coronavirus as a deliberate act of bioterrorism is widely discredited. Can there be any doubt that many unhinged Trump followers would transfer the association of the virus as “Chinese” to Chinese people?

I do believe Trump’s words had consequences. They led to more Americans perceiving Asian-Americans as foreign and un-American. This is similar to the hate unleashed against Muslims after 9/11. History shows that all it takes is a loose association.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a study last October that showed a dramatic spike in anti-Asian sentiment after President Trump tested positive for coronavirus. For days after Trump’s diagnosis, the percentage of anti-Asian language on Twitter remained higher than usual. At that time, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said:

“The level of hatred and vitriol that was aimed at Asian-Americans and Chinese people on social media is simply staggering. The hate speech and stereotyping are irresponsible and can spill over into real world violence.”

The tendency to vilify minorities during times of crisis is long-standing. Professor Sherry Wang of Santa Clara University has written that the U.S. has often promoted racist myths to portray different groups of people as inferior, dirty and dangerous to white people. She cites the “Yellow Peril” stereotype. In the 1880’s Chinese laborers were scapegoated for a bad economy as they competed for jobs.

There is a history of tying Chinese people to the spread of diseases. Public health authorities misrepresented Asians as diseased carriers of incurable diseases, like small pox and bubonic plague. The association between disease and immigrants was used as a catalyst for immigration restrictions in the early 20th century.

Asian workers played a critical role in building the American infrastructure in the West, particularly railroads, but they were seen as “other” by whites. A white supremacist movement promoted the belief Chinese workers were stealing jobs.

These attitudes, encouraged by power elites, led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. It was the first law that excluded an entire ethnic group.

Many cities and towns throughout the West also expelled Chinese residents from their jurisdictions. In the fall of 1885, a white mob in Tacoma Washington kicked down doors, dragged Chinese from their homes, and violently expelled the Chinese population from the city. The mob then burned down Chinatown.

In the late 19th century, Chinese people in the United States were lynched with impunity. The largest mass lynching in American history occurred in 1871 when an anti-Chinese mob attacked Chinatown in Los Angeles. There were 18 lynching victims.

Asian-Americans had little legal recourse then. In California, an 1854 California Supreme Court case ruled that Asians were not allowed to testify in court as they were explicitly considered inferior. In 1863, the California legislature passed a statute prohibiting Asian Americans from testifying in court as either witnesses or victims.

Blaming Asian-Americans for public health crises is nothing new. But it needs to be said that the idea that Asian-Americans are spreading the coronavirus in America is malicious nonsense. It is time to pierce the invisibility of the racist hate being directed against Asian-Americans.

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Mud season – posted 3/12/2021

March 12, 2021 1 comment

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Jakarta is coming – posted 3/10/2021

March 11, 2021 2 comments

It has now been over five years since the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian genocide. That 1965 genocide remains largely unknown. No genocide has received less mass media attention.

In that genocide carried out by the Indonesian military and death squads, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people perished. The Indonesian military herded another million into concentration camps. The murders were directed against the Indonesian Communist Party, the broader left wing community, trade unionists, teachers and loyalists to President Sukarno who was then the leader of the country.

Estimates have varied about how many died. Some estimates go as high as a million dead. The killing got completely out of hand sweeping up many thousands who were deemed to have insufficient loyalty and fervor for the new military regime of General Suharto.

A big part of the reason that genocide has received less attention is because of whom the victims were. Defeating the Indonesian left was seen as a huge win for the United States. At the time, the Indonesian Communist Party, called the PKI, was the third largest communist party in the world besides China and the Soviet Union.

The PKI’s strategy of non-violent, direct engagement with the masses of people had made it very popular. Almost a third of the country’s registered voters were PKI-affiliates.The PKI had a close alliance with President Sukarno. They had no arms and they were pursuing a peaceful transition to socialism. They relied on their relationship with President Sukarno for influencing policy.

We are now learning more about the Indonesian genocide. Although it received little publicity in the United States, there was an International People’s Tribunal held in The Hague in 2015 about the Indonesian mass murders. An independent tribunal of judges issued a final report with a concluding statement:

“The judges consider that allegations by the prosecution of cruel and unspeakable murders and mass murders of over tens of thousands of people, of unjustifiable imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people without trial and for unduly long periods in crowded conditions, and the subjection of many of the people in prison to inhumane and ruthless torture and to forced labor that might well have amounted to enslavement, are well founded.”

The Tribunal found that the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 were crimes against humanity and they also found the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia were complicit in the mass murder. The judges found the United States supported the Indonesian military “knowing well that they were embarked upon a program of mass killing”.

The United States had a long history training the Indonesian military. When General Suharto seized power, the United States, through Voice of America, spread propaganda to demonize the left. Also, Washington provided vital mobile communications equipment to the military.

Most tragically, the U.S. embassy, with help from CIA analysts, prepared lists with the names of thousands of leftists and leftist sympathizers and handed them over to the Indonesian Army. These people were then murdered and checked off the list.

The Washington Post reporter, Vincent Bevins, in his book, The Jakarta Method, has looked more deeply into these events. Bevins says the United States won the Cold War but, in the process, it created a loose network of U.S. backed anticommunist extermination programs that carried out mass murder in multiple countries. 

The Jakarta method refers to the model of mass extermination employed by the Indonesian military. Bevins says that Jakarta became an explicit model for military dictatorships in the 1970’s including Brazil, Chile and Argentina. He argues 22 countries with U.S.-backed anticommunist extermination programs carried out mass murders between 1945 to 2000. Bevins distinguishes these mass murders from regular war and collateral damage from military engagements.

In Chile, before the coup against President Salvador Allende, the word “Jakarta” started appearing, plastered on walls in Santiago. Left wing activists started receiving postcards saying “Jakarta is coming”. To quote Bevins on Jakarta:

“It meant anticommunist mass murder. It meant the state organized extermination of civilians who opposed the construction of capitalist authoritarian regimes loyal to the United States. It meant forced disappearances and unrepentant state terror. And it would be employed far and wide in Latin America over the next two decades.”

Operation Condor was one subsequent expression of Jakarta. In 1975, representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile decided to work together to torture and kill those they considered subversive. The U.S. government provided planning, coordinating, training on torture, technical aid and military support to the various authoritarian governments. This was largely a CIA project. The alliance set up a program to collaborate to exterminate their enemies worldwide.

Most famously, a Condor operative, Michael Townley, an American with CIA and Chilean secret police connections, organized the murder of the former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffett, by car bomb in Washington DC in 1976. The Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, ordered the murder.

General Antonio Domingo of Argentina explained the outlook of those behind Operation Condor:

“First we will kill all subversives, then we will kill all of their collaborators, then those who sympathize with subversives, then we will kill those who remain indifferent and finally we kill the timid.”

Jakarta was about the mass murder of unarmed civilians. Bevins shows how events in Indonesia in the 1960’s-1970’s were actually far more consequential for American foreign policy than events in Vietnam. Indonesia was far larger and of more geopolitical importance than Vietnam.

Before 1965, Indonesia had been a leader of the non-aligned movement and the struggle against colonialism. After centuries of exploitation, Indonesia and other Third World countries wanted economic sovereignty and better terms within the global economic system. The genocide kept Indonesia in the American sphere of influence but, in effect, the country evolved into a grossly under-developed neo-colony. If anything, over time, the economic gap between U.S. wealth and Indonesian poverty has widened.

Bevins shows the demonization, isolation, and trauma experienced by the victims of the Indonesian military that continues to this day. He also shows the dilemma the extreme violence has posed for those who advocated a peaceful transition to democratic socialism. In Indonesia, the peaceful path resulted in annihilation. Bevins does not deny the brutal crimes carried out by communists such as in Cambodia but he says those events are much better known.

The government of Indonesia has failed to take responsibility or even acknowledge the horrible atrocities of the genocide. Similarly, the U.S. has hidden its role in this massively shameful crime. Our media has abetted the crime by failing to cover and educate the public about the genocide. Maybe someday though justice will demand an accounting. 

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