Monday, June 13, 2005

Failing in the present

There are hollow gestures, and then there are appallingly hollow gestures that only highlight the grotesque incompetence of our nation's political leadership.

Today the Senate managed the latter, when it voted to apologize for its manifest failure in never having passed an anti-lynching bill.

Having done so, the question immediately becomes: Just when do you think you'll get around to passing one?

The gesture, such as it is, is actually rather laudable. Indeed, I've noted many times that the demise of an anti-lynching law, in the eyes of history, is one of the more notable moral failures on the part of Congress; it's abundantly clear now that this failure was a horrendous misjudgment. As the story noted, during the height of the "Lynching Era," several thousand black men were summarily murdered, often with outright official sanction:
During that time, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law.

But the Senate, with Southern conservatives wielding their filibuster powers, refused to act. With the enactment of civil rights laws in the 1960s and changes in national attitudes, the issue faded away.

The story goes on to explain what motivated this outburst of civic-mindedness, other than recent Republican agitation denouncing the filibuster as the root of evil itself (and rest assured that the next time the filibuster is on the line, this resolution will get trotted out by the GOP):
The sponsors of the resolution, Landrieu and George Allen, R-Va., said they were motivated in part by a recent book, Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, in which author James Allen collected lynch pictures, mostly taken by those participating in the killings.

"More than a half-century ago, mere feet from where we sit ... the Senate failed you and your ancestors and our nation," Landrieu told descendants at a lunch in the Capitol.

... The nonbinding resolution apologizes to the victims for the Senate's failure to act and "expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush talked about slavery and the travails of American democracy in a meeting Monday with five African leaders.

The Senate, McClellan said, "has taken a step that they feel they need to take, given their own past inaction on what were great injustices."

Gosh, it almost makes your heart swell with civic pride to read such uplifting thoughts.

At least, until you realize that these same Republicans just last October managed to kill, yet again, the most recent iteration in the ongoing effort to pass a genuine federal hate-crime statute.

Hate crimes, it should be clear, are the direct descendants of lynching. Lynching always was about "keeping the niggers down": its purpose was to enforce official and unofficial racial segregation, to terrorize minorities into abject subjugation. Even as lynching -- which in its heyday was a mass community celebration involving thousands of upstanding citizens -- became increasingly stigmatized and the practice relegated to smaller handfuls of extremists, the objects of this kind of hatred have grown in number, now including not just blacks and Jews but Asians, Muslims, and gays and lesbians. But the purpose of the crimes -- whether mere cross burnings or horrendous murders -- has always been to terrorize minority communities into subjugation and, ultimately, elimination.

Congress never passed an anti-lynching law. The closest thing to it on the books can be found in the criminal provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which largely limit federal investigations to cases involving violations of federal laws or crimes occurring on federal property.

To date, there are no federal hate-crimes laws on the books that either have any teeth or are otherwise ever used by federal prosecutors. There was the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which ordered the FBI to keep track of hate crimes in order for law enforcement to get a better handle on the phenomenon. The Hate Crime Sentencing Enhancement Act passed in 1994 at first glance appeared to be an effort to finally create a real federal anti-hate-crime law. But HCSEA was notable as well for the shortness of its scope; the law, contingent as it was on existing federal law, only considered violent crimes committed on federal property or in the pursuit of a federal activity (such as voting in an election) as potential hate crimes. As such, it continues to be only rarely prosecuted.

There have since been two serious efforts to pass a federal hate-crime law: The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act. Both passed the Senate. Both were killed -- the LLEEA twice now -- by Republican House leaders through backroom maneuvers. The most recent demise of the LLEEA, last October in the midst of the election (when it was rather nakedly killed so that it didn't have to cross Bush's desk), went completely unnoticed by both the press and by progressives in general.

I'd like to repeat some of the observations I made back in October when the bill was killed:
This was a bill that had been approved overwhelmingly by the Senate in June by a 65-33 vote. The House itself passed a resolution 213-186 instructing the House leaders -- namely, Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert -- to pass the bill through the House Conference Committee.

They ignored it, and last week stripped it out of the Defense Appropriations Bill to which it had been attached, effectively killing it.

This is now the third time DeLay and Co. have pulled this stunt and gotten away with it. They used precisely the same tactic to kill the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 1999, and to kill its successor, the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, in 2000.

As the Human Rights Campaign explained in its press release:

The measure enjoys strong bipartisan support and is endorsed by more than 175 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organizations, including: the National Sheriffs' Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, U.S. Conference of Mayors, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and many others.

That didn't matter. What mattered to Republicans was the freedom to bash gays.

Oh, we know they hide behind phony and nonsensical arguments like "all crimes are hate crimes" and "these laws create thought crimes." But let's get real about what's really happening here: These laws are not being passed because the Republican leadership -- including George W. Bush -- is determined not to allow any improvement in the laws for gays and lesbians.

The reality is that Republicans have established credibility with their base -- especially fundamentalist Christians -- by making emotional appeals to their "values"; this is, as many observers have noted, an essential element of their ability to persuade working-class people to vote for an agenda clearly at odds with their own self-interest. And, after abortion, attacking the "homosexual agenda" is easily the most prominent and flagrant of these "values."

Republicans also like to talk about the need to live up to the consequences of their actions. And one of the real consequences of the House's refusal to pass this legislation is that more hate crimes will occur.

Here's a reality check for Republicans:

-- We know, from FBI statistics, there are at least 8-9,000 hate crimes committed in this country every year.

-- We also know, however, from Justice Department studies, that these statistics are horribly unreliable because hate crimes are egregiously underreported every year.

-- The magnitude of the underreporting is substantial. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the number of hate crimes in this country annually approaches closer to 40,000. That means roughly 30,000 hate crimes are going uninvestigated and unprosecuted every year.

-- What all of this underscores is the fact that, even though we passed a law in 1989 ordering the collection of hate-crime data, we still don't have firm handle on the scope and depth of the hate-crime problem nationally. And we won't until law enforcement at all levels -- particularly on the local level -- are adequately trained at identifying and investigating hate crimes.

-- The LLEA's main provisions, as its name suggests, are devoted to enhancing the ability of local police and prosecutors to obtain training in hate crimes.

-- However, it also expanded the federal categories of hate crimes to include a bias against gays and lesbians. For that reason alone, it was killed by the House leadership despite its broad support.

The end result: Tens of thousands of hate crimes that go unreported and uninvestigated, and no end in sight. This problem is especially acute among gays and lesbians, most particularly in rural areas, where their quite reasonable fears of being outed often prevent them from even reporting such crimes. And of course, those same rural areas are nearly uniformly Republican; the coalescence of attitudes with top-down political leadership is hardly accidental.

In other words, Republicans' actions directly make lives more miserable for gays and lesbians and their families, all of whom have to deal with the trauma and tragedy that inevitably results from the violence and intimidation that is the essence of hate crimes.

Likewise, those pious Republicans who now look to the sky and wish the Senate had passed an anti-lynching law all those years ago would make a much more meaningful gesture in that regard by resurrecting the LLEEA, passing it out of the Senate and House, and sending it along to President Bush for his signature.

But then, as Shrek puts it: "Yeah, right, like that's ever gonna happen!"

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