A silent wind blows

Conservatives seem to have nothing to say when it comes to racism, hate crimes and white supremacists.

By Joe Conason
Published February 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

-->It doesn't have the Nielsen numbers of the JonBenet Ramsey case, but one of the grimmest spectacles in recent memory is unfolding in Jasper, Texas, at the trial of John William King, one of three men indicted for the torture murder of James Byrd Jr. Prosecutors have presented evidence that King and two accomplices chained Byrd to the back of a pickup last June and then dragged him along the back roads until his body ripped apart. This atrocity was allegedly meant to inspire the creation of a new racist organization in East Texas, to be known as the Texas Rebel Soldiers Division of the Confederate Knights of America -- for which King already had written a "code of ethics." His fashion statement is a tattoo of a black man hanging from a tree.

If all this sounds like a nightmare from America's distant past, it isn't. There are literally hundreds of white supremacist groups operating at various levels across the country, many of them as insignificant as King's little band of goons, but no less lethal. Many of them have carried out random killings like the Byrd murder during the past decade, and there will no doubt be more such horrific rituals in years to come.

In other words, there really are "hate crimes," and the question that lingers after hearing about James Byrd's terrible death is what to do about them. Conservatives haven't had much to say about the Byrd case -- if the silence of right-wing pundits means anything -- except to deplore legislation that would increase the penalties for hate crimes. (Somehow they get particularly upset when proposed hate crime laws include protections for gays and lesbians.)

Passing laws against hate does seem both futile and censorious, and prosecutors certainly could misuse such a statute for demagogic purposes. Drafting a hate-crimes law that doesn't do violence to the First Amendment might indeed be difficult -- but isn't it worth the effort to try? By insisting that no such laws should even be considered, our normally law-and-order-loving right-wingers risk appearing a bit squishy on criminals who happen to be racial, religious or sexual bigots.

After all, many crimes carry heavier penalties under what are known as "aggravating circumstances." It's universally considered far worse to rape or kill a child than an adult, and nobody on the right complains when legislators decree harsher punishment for those offenses.

Still, opponents of hate crimes legislation aren't necessarily soft on hate. They may quite sincerely believe that there is no constitutional or practical means of distinguishing between murder motivated by prejudice and any other kind of homicide. But the burden they seem to shrug off rather easily is to explain how society ought to deal with the hate that leads to hate crimes.
Excluded from this query, of course, are those who enjoy and profit from promotion of bigotry: radio shock jocks, anti-gay crusaders, culture warriors and eugenic theorists who populate the uglier precincts of the right. Characters like Joseph Sobran, Patrick Buchanan, Charles Murray and Jesse Helms spring instantly to mind.

While those troglodytes account for a substantial fraction of conservatism as a whole, let's be generous and assume they don't represent the dominant trend on the right. What do the decent right-wingers propose to do about the Confederate Knights of America and the spiritual disease that spawned it and all its kindred?

The honest answer, unfortunately, is "nothing." The right-wing response to coping with racism almost invariably is negative -- as in simply negating any active anti-racist measure, for reasons sincere or spurious. Conservatives oppose affirmative action, often for perfectly principled reasons, but propose no real means to ameliorate the past inequities that affirmative action is designed to remedy. Conservatives mock the president for convening a panel on race relations, which admittedly accomplished little, but have almost nothing useful themselves to say about improving racial harmony. The unmistakable impression is that the worst elements of the right promote prejudice, while the better elements remain indifferent and even callous.

Then, laughably, conservatives profess to wonder why African-Americans and Latinos overwhelmingly support President Clinton, despite his moral and political failings. Clinton's secret ought to be obvious to all but the most obtuse right-wingers: He speaks out against racism and always has. He uses the symbolism of his office to fight racism. Black people know that about him, and they don't know that about any of his opponents.

In fact, what they know about some of Clinton's enemies is just the opposite -- from his most dedicated adversaries in Arkansas, led by Justice Jim Johnson, who just happened to be veterans of the old White Citizens Council, to his harshest critics in Washington, such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who just happen to be chummy with the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Of course you remember the CCC, those charmingly sophisticated white supremacists whose links to top Republicans like Lott and Barr caused a flurry of tut-tutting on editorial pages across the country not long ago. The CCC leaders enjoyed their brief moment in the national spotlight, and now they present a wonderful opportunity for conservatives and Republicans to kick some racist butt. Having complained for the past several paragraphs about right-wingers who don't do anything to oppose bigotry, I think it's only sporting to make a positive suggestion.

A few weeks ago, Democratic Reps. Robert Wexler of Florida and James Clyburn of South Carolina, a Jew and a black respectively, introduced House Resolution 35, which condemns the CCC for, among other things, promoting "racism, divisiveness and intolerance" as well as "extremist neo-Nazi ideology and propaganda that incite hate crimes and violence." Noting that the CCC sprang from the old White Citizens Councils, the resolution also "urges all Members of the House of Representatives not to support or endorse the Council of Conservative Citizens and its views."

Now H.R. 35 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Henry Hyde, told New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum that he would support such a resolution. It will be fascinating to see whether Hyde makes good on that promise by allowing a vote on the resolution -- or whether he buries the resolution to spare Barr the embarrassment of voting on it. Should H.R. 35 pass the House, a similar resolution could be introduced in the Senate, for the edification of Majority Leader Lott.

So no more excuses, please. This proposal doesn't abrogate the Bill of Rights or institute racial preferences or even cost a penny. It is probably the cheapest, easiest test of racial decency that conservatives will ever face.

Let's all hope they don't fail.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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