Conservatives Debate the 'Race Card' in Politics

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Political agitators who use "Al Sharpton rhetoric" are in a stronger position today because "spineless Republicans" have supported racial gerrymandering -- thus ensuring the election of divisive figures, said a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Abigail Thernstrom, the commission's vice chair, made the comments during a panel discussion entitled "Trumping the Race Card" at a conservative summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

The far-left political orientation of the Congressional Black Caucus is in part "a gift of the Republican Party," Thernstrom argued.

Instead of standing in principled opposition to the gerrymandering provisions folded into the Voting Rights Act last year, Republican lawmakers, in her view, placed a greater premium on passing the bill -- and thus securing credit for their stand on civil rights.

Under the "preclearance" provision of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department has favored racially gerrymandered districts that protect minority candidates from white political competition.

Thernstrom has argued that such racially gerrymandered districts result in "safe" minority districts and safe white districts, where incumbents keep winning.

There are no incentives to build biracial coalitions that bring Americans together, and American politics is much less fluid than it should be, Thernstrom wrote in a July 2005 op-ed urging Congress to let part of the Voting Rights Act expire.

Republicans will experience greater electoral success, Thernstrom said on Saturday, when they "stop pandering to so-called civil rights leadership."

Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts, recently fell back on "Al Sharpton rhetoric" when he said the U.S. Supreme Court was "seriously considering" overruling the Brown v. Board decision, Thernstrom said.

Patrick, who served as an assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration, "knows better," she added, but he also knows the inflammatory and misleading rhetoric "puts him on the side of caring angles."

'Super-Tuesday of Equality'

The Supreme Court is now considering appeals from Kentucky and Washington State that center on the use of affirmative action in elementary and secondary schools.

Ward Connerly, another panel participant, said he hopes the pending Supreme Court decision on affirmative action will deliver the "knock-out punch" against polices he believes are "totally antithetical" to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Connerly, an African-American who opposes affirmative action, is the founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute.

The diversity rationale that proceeded from the Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke ruling proved to be quite damaging over time, Connerly argued, because it allowed government to make determinations rooted in race as opposed to individual merit. The "lowering of test scores," and the "use of additional points" based on ethnicity have all been done in the name of diversity, Connerly said.

When the Supreme Court ruled to uphold affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan in 2003, Connerly settled on a "high-stakes gamble" that yielded enormous dividends.

He took his cause directly to Michigan voters with a ballot initiative modeled after Proposition 209 in California. The measure amended the Michigan constitution to prohibit state agencies from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative passed by a margin of 58-42 percent this past November, Connerly said, despite opposition from high-profile figures in both parties such as former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. A court challenge is expected.

Mindful of judicial attempts to "defy the will of the people," Connerly said his organization is much more assertive now about pursuing civil rights measures through the ballot box.

Connerly said he plans to push initiatives similar to those in California and Michigan on the November 2008 ballot in other key states -- a "Super Tuesday of Equality," he called it. He told Cybercast News Service he's targeting the key states of Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Missouri, Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah.

Michael Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, who ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for Senate in 2006, said the recent election setbacks were temporary.

Frustration over the international situation undermined Republican campaigns, he said. Nevertheless, Steele said he expects the conservative principles of Lincoln, Reagan and Frederick Douglas to triumph over time.

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