The blank-faced reaction to revelations that arch segregationist Strom Thurmond fathered a daughter with his family's 16-year old African American maid marks the third time in recent months that progressives have been stymied by the yawning hypocrisy on the Right on matters of race, justice, and basic integrity. Strom Thurmond now joins Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett in providing perfect examples of the breathtaking contradictions within the Right wing agenda that have been inadequately challenged by the progressive community.
Perhaps many potential critics are left speechless in the face of this outrage in part because Essie Mae Washington-Williams herself seems so forgiving of her father. Many have taken this to mean that Strom Thurmond wasn't as committed to the cause of segregation as he might have appeared. Yet the belief that segregationists should be viewed sympathetically simply because they sustained family ties with Blacks obscures the true meaning of white supremacy. Neither slavery nor formal segregation was ever grounded in the principled separation of the races or on unyielding racial hatred. Segregation and the rhetoric that supported it were simply a means toward the larger enterprise of insulating and brutally protecting the supremacy of white male power in dictating the terms of political, economic, social and, of course, sexual intercourse. Once this logic is comprehended, nothing about Strom Thurmond's behavior in impregnating Carrie Butler, nor his subsequent relationship to Essie Mae Washington-Williams, seems out of the ordinary.
Washington-Williams' decision not to derail Thurmond when he was most vulnerable was, of course, hers to make. Yet judgment about the historical consequences of that decision remains squarely within the realm of public debate. To comprehend the full implication of that personal decision, it is important to recognize that Strom Thurmond was far more than a fellow traveler on the road to massive resistance to racial equality. Thurmond was a chief architect, principle leader, and key symbol of Southern intransigence in the service of white supremacy.
Despite a stint as a progressive politician, Thurmond's early political influences made it no surprise that he developed into the political hero of the most virulently racist political forces in the South. Thurmond's earliest political role model was "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, a virulently racist leader of the bloody redshirt campaign that punished Blacks and their supporters and obliterated their political power in South Carolina. Scores of Blacks were viciously killed in the campaign. Tillman once bragged about the murder of a Black state senator while he knelt in prayer. Thurmond's father was Tillman's political operative in Edgefield County, a place with a particularly violent reputation. Indeed, Thurmond's father killed a drunken political opponent in the town square in broad daylight. In this political culture, Thurmond was exposed to, and later sought to emulate, those politicians who could stir up a frenzied crowd, often through the racial demonization of their Black neighbors. The conflict among white politicians then was not over "whether" to promote white supremacy, but rather, as one commentator has put it, "who can yell nigger the loudest."
Having drafted the Southern Manifesto declaring unyielding opposition to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurmond galvanized, courted and threatened Southern politicians to stand behind the declaration. In that manifesto are the key components of the defense of segregation that continue to frame resistance to equality agendas to this day. Indeed it was Thurmond's leadership, first in becoming the presidential candidate for the segregationist Dixiecrats, and then his later delivery of this influential cohort to the Republican Party, that polarized the parties on civil rights issues and set the stage for a massive political realignment that still centers race as its major fault line. If Washington-Williams' recollection serves her, Thurmond's defense was that he merely inherited a way of life that as a politician he was expected to defend. But this benign epitaph ignores the fact that Strom Thurmond raised the heat on the racial cauldron well beyond its boiling point.
As Washington-Williams' mildly suggested to her father, Thurmond could have led America down a remarkably different path, one that might have found peace in squarely confronting the democratic illegitimacy of white supremacy. He might have used his considerable political gifts to demonstrate to the masses an acceptance of the inherent equality of American citizens based not on outside coercion but on internalized principles. One can only imagine what the nation might have been spared had Thurmond chosen to get ahead of the game by sowing racial justice in the fertile soil of the South's progressive tradition rather than becoming a dangerously divisive reactionary in the face of modest federal steps to alleviate the suffering of African Americans. Had Thurmond so much as attempted to exercise this courage, he would truly deserve the iconic status he now enjoys. That Thurmond chose not do so, even in the face of a familial relationship with a woman who was susceptible to the torrent of hate that these politics unleashed, discredits all efforts to portray him as a sympathetic character in America's racial drama.
Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is Professor of Law at Columbia University and UCLA and is the Co-Founder and and Co-Director of the African American Policy Forum.
The Center for American Progress's "Bill Bennett Hypocrisy" award went to a most deserving recipient this week, Rush Limbaugh. Until last week, Limbaugh was in the service of two masters, playing both the mighty trumpeter for the army of interests waging the costly and devastating war on drugs, and also apparently playing the junkie who scored black market drugs in the service of his need for a fix. The contradiction uncovered by the revelation of Limbaugh's addiction is breathtaking: Perched safely away from the mass policing and incarceration of millions of Americans, Limbaugh sneered at the ruinous consequences of the war on drugs, particularly for people of color. Fairness, he blustered, did not require reductions in the incarceration of people of color, but rather an increase in the incarceration of whites that, all too often, get away with illegal drug use.
Anyone expecting that Limbaugh or his apologists would lay down their arms and take up Limbaugh's call for the incarceration of white drug abusers like himself, or better yet, call for a dramatic overhaul of American drug policy, is in for a rude awakening. Not only do his supporters refuse to confront the counterproductive consequences of this war and its obvious race and class-based double standards, they've turned hypocrisy into their own rallying cry. The conservative choir has excused Limbaugh's hypocrisy while simultaneously accusing "liberals and the media" of either themselves doing drugs or defending those who do.
According to the warped logic of one of his most vocal supporters, Limbaugh's hypocrisy is acceptable in large part because of the media's hypocrisy. As conservative pundit Matt Drudge declared recently on Buchanan and Press, "There's no law against being a hypocrite a few times in your life and this industry is built on hypocrisy. I'm challenging the media tonight to empty their pockets."
Drudge's defense of Limbaugh is taken directly out of the Right's playbook: "When caught red-handed living a lie, deflect attention from your personal responsibility and shoot one directly across the bow of those perpetual evil-doers, 'the liberals and the media.'" This is classic misdirection, the key to the success of generations of politicians and charlatans for whom smoke and mirrors have always been a stock in trade. At best, the misdirection is entirely exculpatory; at minimum, the public is stymied and confused. When the public discussion over the "war on drugs" degenerates into a debate over who's the bigger hypocrite, Limbaugh and his apologists have effectively won.
Worst still is the effect that this paralyzing defense has on the ability of those who want to use this moment to build momentum toward a saner drug policy. Unable to figure out how to slam this slow, fat pitch out of the park, critics of the current drug policies have resorted to articulating mushy calls for compassion for Limbaugh.
Limbaugh's camp has to be relieved -- indeed ecstatic -- that the so-called "liberals and media" are squandering this moment to voice support for what is essentially a foregone conclusion. The reality is that Limbaugh is unlikely to serve any jail time for his illegal drug use for reasons that everyone in the anti-incarceration movement knows.
Conservatives have little to worry about so long as their opponents can't make more hay out of moments like these. What needs to be captured is that this inhumane drug policy can be sustained only so long as it visits its most heinous consequences upon society's most disempowered. If political elites like the Limbaughs and Bushes of the world had to suffer the devastating penalties for drug use that hundreds of thousands of nameless others face on a daily basis, this drug war would come to a halt in short order. What is needed now, it seems, is less "and neither should you be incarcerated, Rush" and more hard-hitting analysis uncovering why the Limbaughs of the world are less likely to have their lives destroyed by draconian drug laws.
Pat Buchanan and Matt Drudge's homage to Limbaugh's ability to triumph in the face of such a debilitating dependency typifies the tendency of people to "feel the pain" of those like them, while condemning those unlike them to the most punitive treatment conceivable. Perhaps this selectivity is typical for all groups, but it is especially pronounced when race and class define the in- and out-groups. When members of their own group falter, people tend to attribute the cause to circumstances largely beyond their control. In Limbaugh's case, the cause was debilitating back pain. But with regard to out-groups, their "criminal" behavior is read not as circumstantial, but as the product of inherent characteristics so deeply entrenched that they must be rooted out through unyieldingly punitive measures.
One needn't work hard to find the bias reflected in the wagons circling around Limbaugh. Says Matt Drudge on MSNBC, "(I)t makes me want to reach out to him and say we love you Rush, we know you are going through terrible hell."
Anyone going through drug addiction is going through terrible hell, but the magnitude of addiction faced by others is rarely if ever addressed by the likes of Buchanan or Drudge. To Pat Buchanan, the fact that Limbaugh would risk his entire career under the weight of this addiction simply reveals how devastating drug dependency can be. "He must have known these things were damaging his hearing his whole career. He's the king of talk radio, everything is on the line. (I)t suggests a really hellish addiction, does it not?"
The fact that millions of others face this addiction, and confront ever-decreasing opportunities to rid themselves of it has not tempered the conservative support for the war on drugs. And if one wanted to press conservatives about their drumbeat of personal responsibility and choice, it's not too far off track to remind them that Limbaugh, unlike millions of others, had resources and the opportunity to seek treatment for his addiction.
Given the ability of wealthy and well-connected people like Limbaugh to secure their own treatment and escape punishment, there will be little pressure to make treatment and other non-criminal interventions available for ordinary Americans most threatened by today's drug laws. In all likelihood, Rush will return, rehabilitated politically, if not physically, and this sorry chapter will fade into distant memory. Like the limited fall-out from his magnificent disintegration on ESPN, little structural or political change will come from the public's glimpse into the race and class disparities that prop up Limbaugh and the prevailing conventions around race, class and drugs. To engender this kind of change, we must use Limbaugh's story to expose the injustices and racist double standards -- obfuscated by the hypocrisy smokescreen -- that constitute the "war on drugs."
Kimberle Williams Crenshaw (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law schools. She is the founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum (www.aapf.org), and a leading scholar in the Critical Race Theory movement.