By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
There is a tension in the air. It is not the excitement children feel awaiting Christmas or a special birthday. It is a foreboding. Like a scary movie when she approaches a door to the unlit basement. One day before Joe Biden and Paul Ryan debated in Danville, Kentucky, the “reverse discrimination” case of Fisher v. Texas was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court will soon decide if race can be used as one factor in college admissions. This election will decide the future of the Court and the country. That is why George Wallace, a racist from the 1960s, is haunting this election.
George Wallace was a thin funny-looking White politician from Alabama who learned the importance of using the race card in elections. He was known for fiery speeches which stoked White fears of Black progress. As Democratic Governor of Alabama, Wallace vowed to stop Vivian Malone, a Black applicant, from integrating the University of Alabama. When Wallace died in 1998 an obituary by John Anderson stated Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush “successfully adopted toned-down versions of Wallace’s anti-busing, anti-federal government platform to pry low-and middle-income whites from the Democratic New Deal coalition.”
As I watched the first debate between President Obama and Willard “Mitt” Romney, the tactics of George Wallace played out in this millionaires’ claim that he stood for working and middle class Americans against a President who was keeping them from succeeding. In the Biden/Ryan debate, Biden was confrontational, pointed, and lively because he was not saddled with the “angry Black man” burden President Obama carries. Obama must tread the fine line between being a Black president and a Black man.
The roots of race run deep in American politics. For his 1968 presidential bid, George Wallace sought Happy Chandler, former baseball commissioner and Governor of Kentucky, as vice-presidential running mate. Since Wallace was a segregationist, Chandler’s invitation was retracted when Wallace discovered Chandler had endorsed the Brooklyn Dodger’s hiring of Jackie Robinson. Not far from Danville, is the site of Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle, the Battle of Perryville. Fought 150 years ago on October 10, the battle was a short-lived victory for the Confederates who were later forced to retreat by the Union Army.
The “Wallace for President” slogan for his 1968 presidential bid was “Stand Up for America.” However, “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever” is the slogan that made him famous in 1963. Wallace played on the fears interlopers taking over the country. Today, the Republican slogan “We Built It” declares ownership rights. The slogan ignores the contributions of enslaved African labor and assumes trespassers are staking a false claim on the country.
The Romney/Ryan slogan “Take Back America” begs the question – how far back are we going? There was a time when people of color lived in constant fear of White lynch mobs. There was a time when land of the free meant only certain people had Constitutional freedoms and segregation was the law of the land. Today, housing remains segregated. Public schools are majority minority in every major city. It is not enough that African-Americans are harassed by stop and frisk regimes. While White unemployment is 7.9, the unemployment rate is 11.5 percent for Latinos, 13.4 for African- American adults, and 23.7 for African-American teens.
Yet, there seems to be a longing for a time when Whiteness meant possessing power with impunity, at least with regard to people of color. A 1908 postcard image of five Black men hanging lifelessly from a dogwood tree contains this poem: “The negro now by eternal grace. Must learn to stay in the negro’s place. In the sunny south, the land of the free, Let the white supreme forever be. Let this a warning to all negroes be. Or they’ll suffer the fate of the dogwood tree.” This postcard was proudly published by Harkrider Drug Company in Center, Texas.
Over 4,000 men, women, and children have been lynched in this country. In 2005, the U.S. Senate apologized for obstructing antilynching laws. When Asian immigrants were the object of fear by White labor groups, violence and anti-Asian laws followed. Last year, Congress apologized for passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. Japanese- Americans were given over a billion dollars in reparations for their unfair internment during World War II.
Our democracy is being tested. Fear and anger were expertly manipulated by George Wallace. For which he apologized in later life. However, no one will know the lives and livelihoods lost Continued from page 4 to his inflammatory rhetoric. As the presidential election nears, those who now choose to stoke racial tensions for political expediency may be igniting events for which there can be no apology or reparation.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City.