Thursday, January 30, 2003

Pickering and racism

Nick Kessler makes an accurate point about the New Republic's editorial on Charles Pickering:

TNR simply declares that Pickering enjoys strong support within the Mississippi African-American community, without even mentioning the opposition of these prominent Mississippi African-American organizations.

This is correct. Pickering's nomination in fact is opposed by most of the African-American organizations in the state. However, there are in fact African-American individuals who support Pickering's nomination, contrary to Avedon Carol's contention that this claim by the Pickering camp is merely spin.

These include Hattiesburg City Councilman Henry Naylor, an executive board member of the Forrest County NAACP; Laurel Councilman Thaddeus Edmonson, former present of the Laurel/Jones County NAACP; and U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate. All wrote letters in support of Pickering’s nomination. Pickering is also supported by such diehard Democrats as former Gov. William Winter (who served on President Clinton's advisory commission on race) to Attorney General Mike Moore.

That said, I am not as quick to clear Pickering of racism as TNR. As I've noted previously, his behavior in the now-infamous 1992 cross-burning case -- as well as his apparent hostility to the majority/minority districting system [pdf file] -- raises many questions about how thoroughly he's reformed his views from his segregationist beginnings, dating to the days in the late 1950s when he was writing briefs on how to keep Jim Crow laws alive.

Look, when you're dealing with something like racism, especially in the South, it's important to leave room for the fact that people genuinely change. The question in the case of someone like Pickering is: How much did he change? Certainly his behavior in the 1990s suggests someone who, like Trent Lott, never fully shed the attitudes with which he was imbued as a younger man. But unless actual evidence of that exists -- as it obviously did in Lott's case -- then the arguments for it are problematic at best.

That's why this line of argumentation against Pickering strikes me as a disaster -- because it is, essentially, an evidentiary quagmire. Worse yet, it is the kind of thing that is very easily depicted as a "groundless smear" campaign by the GOP -- a message that sells well not so much with blacks but with the suburban whites who are the main targets of the Republicans' supposed 'big tent' strategy.

Again, I think it's more important to raise questions about Pickering's lack of good judgment -- as well as his apparent lack of integrity in answering questions during his nomination proceedings less than honestly -- than to try to resolve the issue of whether or not the man is racist. The latter seems like a doomed strategy.

[On edit: I should point out that Matthew Yglesias twice has made essentially the same argument: here and here:

I wish the Democrats would stop coming up with all kinds of "reasons" for opposing Bush's conservative nominees. Part of the job of a liberal Senator is to oppose the nomination of conservative judges, just as part of the job of a conservative president is to nominate conservative judges. There will be some compromises, some wins, some losses, some more elections, etc. and the country will be fine.

But instead we get a lot of silly character debates. I mean say Pickering was a racist. Say he gathered his kids around the dinner table and treated them to diatribes about the evils of black people. But say he knew something like that would ruin his career as a judge so he kept it out of his public life and managed to decide every single case correctly — that would be a pretty damn good nominee as far as I can see. But in fact he's a judge who will decide many cases wrongly, and that's a great reason to oppose someone.

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