Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, October 31, 2003  

Ashcroft, Justice and discrimination

It appears working for John Ashcroft's Justice Department is no bed of roses for minority lawyers. Who would've thunk it? Indeed, the situation is such that the department censored a report it commissioned on employment discrimination in its workplaces. That move has caused additional embarassment. An intrepid Internet sleuth pierced the veil of deletions and posted the full report to the web, where it has been downloaded thousands of times.

The Justice Department earlier this month posted on its Web site a report from an outside contractor on employee diversity within the department. Many of the negative findings in the report, which the department had refused to release publicly for more than a year, were heavily edited. But Russ Kick, a writer and editor in Tucson, who maintains a Web site that archives government documents, found a way around the editing. He said he was able to call up the document in its Adobe Acrobat format and, using software that allows editing of PDF documents, then highlighted the blacked out editing bars and deleted them. The original, unedited text then appeared.

What was the Justice Department trying to hide?

The unedited report, completed in June 2002 by the consulting firm KPMG, found that minority employees at the department, which is responsible for enforcing the country's civil rights laws, perceive their own workplace as biased and unfair.

"The department does face significant diversity issues," the report said. "Whites and minorities as well as men and women perceive differences in many aspects of the work climate. For example, minorities are significantly more likely than whites to cite stereotyping, harassment and racial tension as characteristics of the work climate. Many of these differences are also present between men and women, although to a lesser extent."

Another deleted part said efforts to promote diversity "will take extraordinarily strong leadership" from the attorney general's office and other Justice Department offices.

I doubt that leadership is available. Prior to becoming attorney general, Ashcroft was a rock-ribbed conservative who sometimes flirted with neo-Confederates.

Now Ashcroft has been asked to explain why he met last fall with Thomas Bugel, the president of the militantly racist Council of Conservative Citizens and a veteran leader of segregationist groups in the St. Louis area.

In the midst of his hard-fought, unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign, Ashcroft sat down with Bugel at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport on September 22. Their meeting took place only weeks before Ashcroft's Democratic opponent, Governor Mel Carnahan, was killed along with his son and campaign manager in a plane crash. Bugel wanted to talk with the senator about the case of Dr. Charles "Tom" Sell, a local dentist under indictment for plotting to murder an FBI agent and a federal witness. Over the past two years Bugel and other leaders of the white supremacist group have been agitating for the release of Sell, a longtime CCC member who has advertised his dental services on [President Gordon] Baum's local radio program.

They have succeeded in getting Ashcroft, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and other legislators to write letters to the Justice Department seeking an investigation of the unusual circumstances under which Sell has been held in federal custody for most of the past three years without trial. . . .

He is also is said to have blocked the ascension of a well qualifed African-American judge, Ronnie White, to a federal judgeship.

Judge White was attacked by Senator Ashcroft because, in 59 capital cases before the Missouri court, he had voted 18 times to reverse the death sentence. In 10 of those 18 the court was unanimously for reversal. Senator Ashcroft hit at cases in which Judge White dissented.

For appraisal of Judge White's record in those cases I rely on Stuart Taylor Jr. of The National Journal, a conservative who is widely respected as a legal analyst. He wrote: "The two dissents most directly assailed by Ashcroft in fact exude moderation and care in dealing with the tension between crime-fighting and civil liberties."

One of the dissents was in a horrifying murder case -- the murder, among others, of a sheriff. Mr. Taylor wrote that Judge White's "conclusion was plausible, debatable, highly unpopular (especially among police) and (for that reason) courageous. For John Ashcroft to call it `pro-criminal' was obscene."

In short, a judge who wrote a thoughtful, reasoned dissent in a murder case was told that it disqualified him for a federal judgeship. Think about what that means for our constitutional system.

Judicial independence has been a fundamental feature of the American system for 200 years and more. We rely on judges to enforce the Constitution: to protect our liberties. But a judge who does so in a controversial case is on notice from John Ashcroft that he may be punished. The judge must reject the constitutional claim, however meritorious, or face a malicious smear.

There is a slimy feel to Senator Ashcroft's behavior with Judge White. One of the Republicans who voted against the judge at Senator Ashcroft's urging, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told Judge White the other day, "The Senate owes you an apology." Commentators have urged Senator Ashcroft to apologize, but he has refused.

The minority attorneys in Ashcroft's Justice Department are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Lawyers of color are disproportionately employed in government because they are less likely to be hired in the private sector. When they face discrimination in their public sector positions, their only remaining choice may be personal or small group practice. However, because of lack of the financial equity many white professionals take for granted, people of color are more likely to be unable to set up their own small businesses. I suspect there is a lot of grinning and bearing it going on at the Justice Department.

posted by J. | 7:00 PM

Monday, October 27, 2003  

Filmmaker explores "MLK Boulevard"

Filmmaker Marco Williams has become enthralled with an objective correlative and incorporated it into his craft.

An objective correlative?

A phrase coined by T.S. Eliot in a 1919 essay on "Hamlet" in which he claimed Shakespeare failed to dramatise in the character of Hamlet some apparently "intractable material." Elliot's general definition asserted,

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked."

The set of objects, situation and chain of events that has evoked an emotion in him -- curiosity -- is the phenomenon of naming streets in American cities after martyred civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Thirty-five years after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his name can be found on hundreds of streets in cities and towns in all corners of the country.

New York filmmaker Marco Williams wants to know why the streets continue to be a popular way of remembering King and what they say about the status of race relations in the United States.

''Why streets? Why not other things?'' Williams asked during a recent stop in Montgomery to interview a local historian. ''Why King and nobody else?''

Williams is currently producing ''MLK Boulevard,'' a film that he hopes will answer those questions and stir discussion. Since June, Williams has traveled to many sites, including Montgomery, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Eugene, Ore., to learn the history of efforts - some successful, others not - to name streets after King. He plans to visit more cities across the country before shooting wraps.

The film has been completed and is currently airing on the Discovery Times Channel.

Williams' objective correlative also makes me curious.

•What does it mean to name a street after Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I believe doing so represents a threshhold acknowledgment that African-Americans exist and that some are heroic persons who have played a significant role in molding American society. The acknowledgment is important because until relatively recently in our history crediting African-Americans with anything of merit just did not happen, particularly in the South.

• Should King be the only one to be acknowledged?

Of course not, other persons of color who have made contributions in a state or city should also be recognized in the naming of public spaces such as streets, parks and buildings. Considering the previous omissions, it would be a good idea to name such entities after overlooked minorities and women.

• Does it matter that streets named after King are sometimes in low-income areas that have been allowed to stagnate?

I think it does if the reason for that is the persons responsible think of King as 'belonging' on to the African-American population. The civil rights movement was beneficial for the entire country, not only people of color. So, I think it is appropriate to name any street anywhere after King.

• Does a symbolic act such as naming streets after King compensate for the continuing inequities between Americans of color and white Americans in health care, education and employment?

No. However, I don't believe such actions detract from more meaningful efforts at reform. Therefore, I can't think of any reason to oppose the naming of public spaces after King or other people of merit.

Not everyone shares my opinion of Williams' objective correlative. Cap'n Ken, a blogger from Louisiana, has written a blog entry deriding the ''MLK Boulevard,'' documentary. In fact, he holds the filmmaker in such disdain that he refuses to refer to him by name and accuses him of having faked footage in the movie without any support for the accusation.

And then there's the Eugene debate that begins and ends the film. Black leaders in Eugene had chosen the city's Centennial Parkway as the road to become MLK Boulevard. Many in Eugene did not approve, as Centennial Parkway was so named to celebrate the state's centennial some years back.

The film maker shows the City Council meeting where the proposal was originally voted down. He shows a number of citizens speaking in favor of the proposal; and he shows council members giving their speeches. When the two council members who supported the change spoke, he cut away to reaction shots from the other council members. They winced; they frowned; they generally looked very unhappy.

Now, the tape of this City Council meeting was taken from the local public-access cable channel. Such low-budget, government-run productions typically do not cut away from a council person as they are speaking to show others' reactions. I think the filmmaker - ala Michael Moore - assembled little bits and pieces of reactions (probably to unrelated things) and edited them together to create a certain impression of what happened. That's all too typical in these "documentaries".

I believe Cap'n Ken's biases have led him to misinterpet Williams' intentions. The filmmaker's interest in the council meeting would be to see how sausage gets made, i.e., legislation debated and passed. Reaction among council members is definitely relevant to that legitimate interest. I also believe it rash to accuse Williams of having doctored film to make council members look bad unless there is evidence to support such a claim.

In a rhetorical question, Cap'n Ken says:

Is the renaming of a street in honor of King a fitting tribute, or is it a meaningless gesture that does nothing to promote King's vision and is just the default tribute required for all cities to pass NAACP muster?

Even absent his sneer at the NAACP, I believe his position -- that such tributes are empty -- misses the reasons having a street named after King matters.

Marcos Williams' curiousity about the MLK Boulevard phenomenon has given us all food for thought -- his goal in producing the movie.

posted by J. | 7:55 PM

Sunday, October 26, 2003  

A new book focuses on women writers in southern Africa

Margo Jefferson, writing for the Books section of The New York Times, recommends a new anthology of writers.

Sometimes literature itself puts a country on our internal map. At about the same time the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, Oprah's Book Club announced that its next selection would be another South African novel, Alan Paton's 1948 book, ''Cry, the Beloved Country.'' To learn more about South Africa, I turned to the Feminist Press's rich new anthology ''Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region.'' It's an amazing resource, close to 600 pages, and it's a true collaboration, the work of seven editors from four countries. The 20 or so original languages include English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and siNdebele. The traditions are oral and written: there are poems and folktales, stories, diaries and political documents starting from the 1830's.

An anonymous widow's chant from Lesotho (first collected in 1836) has the ring of Greek choral poetry.

Would that I had wings to fly up to the sky!
Why does not a strong cord come down from the sky?
I would tie it to me, I would mount,
I would go there to live.

And here's the black South African journalist Marian Morel describing, with sardonic brilliance, a 1959 Capetown beauty contest:

''The girls -- colored, Indian and African -- had to provide their own dresses. Factory workers, domestic workers, waitresses by day. Now with a dab of powder, a secret twist of their dresses, they were trying to become the Princess for the Night.

'' 'Gonna, I feel like a baggage of nerves,' one girl told me. 'I wish I wasn't competing. I wish I was just spectating like you.' . . .

''The band swung into 'Anchors Aweigh' and the girls sailed in. . . . A fellow in an orange shirt posted himself behind No. 19, and every now and then licked her left ear. She didn't blink an eyelash. I gave her 10 out of 10 for poise.''

I've been a fan of South African literature for as long as I've been politically conscious. When I consider how much my life has been enriched by Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, Bessie Head and other writers of the country, I am amazed. Amid its political strife, southern Africa has produced a wealth of observers of what it means to be human in the twentieth century. If the new anthology from the Feminist Press is a guide, that legacy will continue into this one.

posted by J. | 7:47 PM