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“A Twisted Moral Value System”: In Lousiana Governor Loss, David Vitter Shows Just How Far A Republican Must Sink To Be Rejected In A Red State

As most Washington Monthly readers know by now, Democrat John Bel Edwards defeated disgraced Louisiana Senator David Vitter in his bid for governor to replace failed presidential candidate Bobby Jindal. Vitter was famously the center of several scandals, especially including a prostitution debacle in which he reportedly engaged in not-so-vanilla interests.

Vitter had been trailing heavily in the polls for quite some time, and pulled out all the usual Republican dogwhistle tricks, from scaremongering over Syrian refugees to his own version of the racist Willie Horton strategy, claiming that his opponent would assist President Obama in releasing “thugs” from jail.

None of it worked. Jon Bel Edwards isn’t the sort of Democrat progressives will croon over anytime soon: he is anti-abortion, pro-gun and opposed President Obama on refugees. But he’s the first Democrat to win major elected office in the South since 2009, and his victory will mean that a quarter of a million people will get healthcare who would almost certainly have been denied it under a Vitter administration. That’s definitely a good thing.

But it would be extremely premature to declare that this result bodes well for a Democratic resurgence in the South. Democrats fared far more poorly downballot from the governor’s race, proving that the John Bel Edwards’ victory owed more to Louisiana voters’ disgust with David Vitter than to sympathy for his own agenda. The example of Matt Bevin’s recent election in Kentucky shows that at least the voters who turn out in off-year cycles in the South are more than willing to deny hundreds of thousands of people their right to healthcare and other benefits. It was David Vitter’s personal troubles that hurt him badly enough to hand a Democrat an overwhelming victory.

And that itself is yet another indictment of Republican voters. David Vitter’s prostitution scandal is weird, creepy and untoward for a U.S. Senator. But a legislator’s fidelity and sexual proclivities have very little bearing on their job as a representative of the people, which is to protect the Constitution and do a responsible job providing the greatest good for the greatest number of constituents. Scapegoating refugees and denying medical care to hundreds of thousands are objectively both far greater moral crimes against common decency than a thousand trysts with sex workers. That the latter is illegal and the former is legal is a testament to the twisted moral value system perverted by puritan Calvinist ethics. Vitter should have been ousted for his overtly destructive public morality, not his far less consequential private failures.

But that’s not how Republicans roll. In their world, causing the needless deaths of thousands is fair game. Having sex with the wrong person, on the other hand, is unforgivable.

There may be a large number of people in this world who share that value system. But that doesn’t mean that those with a well-adjusted moral compass must respect it or grant it validity.


By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthy, November 22, 2015

November 23, 2015 Posted by | David Vitter, John Bel Edwards, Louisiana Governors Race | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Internalized Fear Of Black Males”: ‘Confirmation Bias’ Has Long History Of Helping Whites Demonize Blacks

Does “confirmation bias” influence the way whites think about police shootings of young men of color?

This bias is the tendency to interpret or remember information in a way that confirms what we already believe, and helps us to ignore new data. And it may explain the tension between white cops and black kids — and the public reaction to them — more than outright racism does.

Many of us think police must be in the right because we have internalized a fear of black males and assume that they are up to no good.

As Harvard sociologist Charles Ogletree has pointed out, “Ninety-nine percent of black people don’t commit crimes, yet we see the images of back people day in, day out, and the impression is that they’re all committing crimes.”

Young black males in recent years were at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts, reports ProPublica, which analyzed federal data this year. It found that in “1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012, blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million,” compared with 1.47 per million white males in that age range.

Roger J.R. Levesque of Indiana State University says that eyewitnesses to crimes generally report scenarios that are consistent with confirmation bias. Among the studies he cites is one in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found merely seeing a black face led subjects to be more likely to mistake objects for weapons.

In Ferguson, Mo., the white officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, described Brown as demon-like. Would he have used such a word if the teenager had been white?

Confirmation bias undoubtedly helped the defense in the 2013 trial in the death of Trayvon Martin. Lawyers successfully “thuggized” the black teenager, who was walking home carrying candy and a bottle of tea when he was shot by a white neighborhood watch member. Martin had no criminal record, but the defense dug up some minor problems he had in school and made an animated video showing him attacking the white man who shot him. There was no actual evidence that the unarmed teenager started the fight. But jurors clearly bought that narrative.

Throughout U.S. history, confirmation bias has helped some white people use the image of the evil black man for their own ends. The “Willie Horton” TV ad caused a huge controversy when it ran during the 1988 presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The ad featured a fearsome-looking mug shot of a black convict who raped a woman while free under a Massachusetts prison furlough program backed by Dukakis. The ad was intended to picture Dukakis as soft on crime, and it worked.

Whites trying to escape punishment for their crimes sometimes find black men convenient scapegoats, because they are so readily seen as prone to crime. In 1989, a Boston white man, Charles Stuart, was shot in a black neighborhood in the city, along with his pregnant wife. He blamed a “black male.” His wife and son, who was delivered prematurely, later died.

News coverage was extremely sympathetic until evidence surfaced indicating that Stuart shot his wife and himself.

In 1994, Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman, claimed that a black man had hijacked her car and kidnapped her two young sons. For days, the news media gave around-the-clock coverage to a nationwide search for the black carjacker. But no such man exist. Smith had drowned her two sons by pushing her car into a lake with the boys inside. She had a wealthy boyfriend who allegedly was not interested in having a “ready-made” family.

It’s no wonder whites so easily accept the image of the evil black male. But this was not always so.

Early in the history of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, notes Audrey Smedley, now professor emeritus of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University, blacks were not set apart from other laborers. The first slaves the English used in the Caribbean were Irish. And there were more Irish slaves in the middle of the 17th century than any others.

At that time, Smedley writes, African slaves and European slaves “worked together, they played together … they lived together” and color didn’t “make much difference … because they were all in the same boat.”

One 17th century planter who wrote to the trustees of his company said, “Please don’t send us any more Irishmen. Send us some Africans, because the Africans are civilized and the Irish are not.”

But plantations grew ever larger and the African slave trade exploded. To justify the cruelty of lifetime slavery, the myth had to be manufactured that blacks — especially men — were subhuman and violent. That image stuck.

In the years since, those ideas too often have intensified. As Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson points out, “More than 45 years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded that we lived in two societies, one white, one black, separate and still unequal.” And we still do. If we don’t resolve this gap, Dyson writes, “We are doomed to watch the same sparks reignite, whenever and wherever injustice meets desperation.”

Only when we realize the power of confirmation bias, and start looking at reality instead of stereotypes and misinformation, will things change.


By: Caryl Rivers, Journalism Professor at Boston University; Op-Ed Opinion, The Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2014

December 24, 2014 Posted by | Black Men, Confirmation Bias, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Times Are A Changin”: Once Upon A Time, Everybody Wanted To Be “Tough on Crime”

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent’s opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, “Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?”

As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime attacks for both primary and general elections, targeting other Democrats and Republicans alike. In 1994, it reached an absolute fever pitch. My firm had about 30 clients, all Democrats, and we did tough-on-crime pieces for every single one. In many cases, we’d make ten or so different mail pieces for a client, and eight of them would be about crime. In other words, in every last race we worked on, every candidate was accusing every other candidate of being soft on crime. The highlight of my consulting career was when I lay down on a sidewalk so our photographer could trace around my body with chalk for a murder aftermath scene we staged.

Of course, it was all tinged with the inescapable whiff of race—the most famous soft-on-crime attack from the era was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 assault on Michael Dukakis over the “Willie Horton” case.  These days we look at the elder Bush as a kindly old man who does things like wear silly socks and shave his head in solidarity with a young cancer patient, and his place in history has been immeasurably aided by the fact that his presidency was nothing like the spectacular disaster of his son’s. But we shouldn’t forget that in order to reach the White House, H.W. enthusiastically led one of the most despicable campaigns of racist fear-mongering in the history of American politics. It isn’t that crime wasn’t genuinely high in those days, because it was. But the media took people’s real concerns and whipped them into a frenzy of fear, talking about crack babies condemned to lifetimes of mental retardation (which turned out to be completely bogus) and terrifying young black male “superpredators” (ditto), turning individual horror stories into lightning-fast policy changes, like the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass, which produced a local-media frenzy the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before or since and led directly to California’s “three strikes” law.

At the time, the question was never, “Is this proposed measure to increase prison sentences a good idea?” The only question, asked by politicians from both parties, was whether it couldn’t be made much tougher. If you suggested that “tough” might not be the best standard by which a policy should be judged, you were risking your political career. Republicans embraced this zeitgeist with glee, and Democrats embraced it out of abject fear.

Fortunately, times have changed, and it’s now possible to have a rational discussion about crime. That simple fact—that politicians can support a variety of proposals on crime and punishment without worrying that their careers will be over as soon as somebody utters the phrase “soft on crime”—is something for which we should be enormously thankful, as much work remains to be done. As Greg Sargent pointed out, “this is an issue around which Dems concerned about racial justice, and conservative libertarians (such as Senator Paul) who share race-based concerns in their better moments, and conservatives who see the issue more through the prism of their opposition to government overreach and ‘one size fits all’ solutions, should theoretically be able to find common ground.”

The most important change in the last 20 years is that crime has fallen so dramatically (see here for instance), and in response we’ve seen a real cultural shift. I’m sure there are still politicians who’d love to tar their opponents as soft on crime. But they know it probably wouldn’t work. And that means there’s at least a chance we can make real policy change.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 13, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Speaking In The Abstract”: How The Right Talks About Race, Even When They’re Not Talking About Race

In 1982, Republican operative Lee Atwater gave an interview to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University, in which he explained how the so-called “Southern Strategy” of focusing on race had become much more subtle by the 1980s.

Atwater, who apologized to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of his tactics before his early death in 1991, put it like this:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Some conservatives questioned whether the controversial words credited to Atwater were ever truly spoken by the man who helped George H.W. Bush win the presidency using tactics like the so-called “Willie Horton” ad. After the racially charged 2012 campaign — in which the Romney campaign used racial dogwhistles including insinuating that the president was trying to “take the work out of welfare” — James Carter IV, the son of the former president and the researcher who unearthed the “47 Percent” tape, convinced Lamis’ widow to release the audio above.

Atwater was in his own way echoing what President Lyndon B. Johnson once told his press secretary, Bill Moyers.

”I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” the president said. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

In this summer of the George Zimmerman trial, Detroit going bankrupt and Republicans demanding huge cuts to food stamps, it’s clear that these old narratives are still embedded in our politics. And in the post-birther era, race is no longer, as Atwater said in 1982, “on the back burner.”

While the right wants to focus on black culture and “black-on-black” crime, they refuse to acknowledge that “white-on-white” crime is statistically nearly as common and happens much more often, as white people, who are the vast majority of the population, commit the vast majority of violent crimes in this country.

Negative aspersions on so-called “food stamps,” like Ronald Reagan’s old “welfare queens,” often carry a racial connotation. But government assistance in this country is actually used by ethnic groups pretty much in proportion to their share of the population:

African-Americans, who make up 22 percent of the poor, receive 14 percent of government benefits, close to their 12 percent population share.

White non-Hispanics, who make up 42 percent of the poor, receive 69 percent of government benefits – again, much closer to their 64 percent population share.

But these statistics fade into the background as Trayvon Martin instantly becomes a thug when he puts up his hood in the rain.


By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, July 28, 2013

July 29, 2013 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Right Wing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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