Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

White liberals the odd-men-out of racial politics

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October 27, 1994

c.Newhouse News Service

Miriam Waltzer knows, in more ways than any one person should, what it’s like to be maligned and attacked for reasons of race.

She grew up half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, surviving the Holocaust hidden in a Catholic convent.

She married a U.S. soldier, Bruce Waltzer, and returned with him to New Orleans.

She was home alone, save the baby in her arms, on that fall day in 1963 when state troopers raided their home, confiscating their Hebrew Bible, their copy of the Declaration of Independence signed by FDR, and later jailed Bruce for sedition. His real treason was to white supremacy. The Waltzers were integrationists.

This month, Miriam Waltzer, approaching the pinnacle of her own career as a well-respected liberal jurist, dropped out of a race for the state Supreme Court that she might well have won rather than stand accused of betraying her liberalism by defeating a black candidate in a majority-black city.

“In order to remain in this race,” Waltzer noted grimly in announcing her withdrawal, “I would have had to change into a person I am not and will never be.”

It was a stark and poignant moment in the history of white liberals. They are bruised and battered people whose lives at the intersection of guilt and good intentions have made them more than ever the odd men out in this era of identity politics and racial polarization, of explicitly and sometimes exquisitely crafted minority districts.

When political jurisdictions are increasingly very white or very black, the white liberal is more than ever a misfit.

To some, the plight of the white liberal is evidence that no good deed goes unpunished; they are living proof of the thanklessness of conscience.

To others, the heightened irrelevancy of the white liberal is a heaping helping of just desserts for those who wore the disdain of other whites as a self-satisfied badge of honor even as they slavered pathetically for the approval of blacks.

“Liberals hope blacks will acknowledge that some whites – themselves as it happens – are not the enemy, but rather can be counted as friends and allies,” said political scientist Andrew Hacker, who is white, in his book, “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.”

“For blacks to grant this, if only by bestowing a smile, serves to certify one’s moral stature.”

Increasingly, though, in a time of mounting black nationalism, blacks aren’t bestowing that smile as often to white liberals, who are by their very political proximity more likely to be viewed as patronizing interlopers, obstacles to empowerment and subliminal racists.

“The hard feelings are … toward white people,” said Lolis Elie, a black attorney and long-time civil rights activist in New Orleans. He was dismissing the notion that Waltzer’s supporters should feel hurt or cheated by the recent turn of events.

“We feel misused,” said Elie. “These are the people we kicked out of the civil rights organizations in the ’60s. They are no different from the racists in the sense they love African-American people as long as they’re powerless.”

These feelings of alienation run deep. A nationwide survey of black Americans earlier this year conducted by University of Chicago researcher Michael Dawson found a community increasingly pessimistic and inward-looking. Half of those surveyed, and even more among the young and the poor, favored the formation of a separate black political party. Those numbers had doubled in five years.

In a sense, the predominant running racial story of 1994 has been the black community’s struggle to unify itself even at the expense of white support. Witness the tangled tale of the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus linking arms with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.

The whole controversy surrounding black-Jewish tensions can be read as easily as black-white liberal tensions, as Jews have long served as the embodiment of the white liberal.

If it is true that white liberals require interracial coalitions to flourish, it is equally true that interracial coalitions, on which black progress in a nation only 12 percent black still hinges to some degree, are a lot tougher without white liberals.

As Cornel West, who now teaches religion and black studies at Harvard, noted in a speech at Howard University earlier this year, if the rising tide of black nationalism may be emotionally quite satisfying, it is ultimately a “cul de sac.”

“It’s harder to serve (in the Mississippi Legislature) now because everything breaks down to a racial issue,” said Ayers Haxton, a progressive white legislator from Natchez. No white would dare use the word “liberal” and “live to tell about it,” he noted.

Haxton said that even as redistricting in Mississippi dramatically increased black representation, it also created white legislators less favorably disposed toward even making a passing gesture of concern toward the black community.

“The black districts are blacker and the white districts are whiter, radicalizing the electorate in both, which radicalizes the people they elect,” said Haxton.

Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia said a survey he and another political scientist conducted of legislatures nationally revealed that for every black seat added as a consequence of redistricting in the 1980s, more than one seat turned Republican.

That trend is continuing in the 1990s. Before the 1990 redistricting, Georgia’s congressional delegation was 9-1 Democratic. It is now 7-4 Democratic and after this midterm election it may be 7-4 Republican. If so, the creation of black districts will have been a critical factor in that turnaround, said Bullock.

To the extent that the Democratic Party becomes shrinkingly white and increasingly black, the trend feeds on itself. Already, he said, the percentage of white males who identify as Democrats in South Carolina is down to single digits.

David Bositis, a leading analyst of black politics with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, believes this downside of redistricting is overstated.

But he acknowledges, with Georgia in mind, “the place where the chickens are going to come home to roost would be if the creation of black districts allowed the Republicans to take over the (U.S.) House.”

If that were to happen, the Congressional Black Caucus – 39 Democrats and one Clarence Thomas-style Republican – in Bositis’ word, would be “emasculated.”

But Jamin Raskin, a white law professor at American University who writes frequently on voting rights issues, believes that on balance, “I think it’s probably more important to have integrated legislatures than just integrated coalitions electing whites to office.”

“These are certainly trying days for white liberals who often feel buffeted on both sides,” said Raskin.

“They feel they experience the contempt of conservative and moderate whites, and oftentimes the suggestion from blacks and Hispanics that they should step aside. But the most forceful and articulate white liberals aren’t having any problems navigating the new political terrain.”

Conversely, black voters from Newark to New Orleans have seen fit to return white liberal incumbents like Peter Rodino and Lindy Boggs over popular black challengers, waiting to replace them with black lawmakers on their retirement.

Likewise, Philadelphia Democrat Thomas Foglietta, the last white congressman to represent a majority-black district in Congress, easily beat back a black challenge this year with strong support from black clergy.

But in New Orleans this fall, the retiring incumbent Supreme Court Justice from the new New Orleans district was the first black ever to serve on the court.

A Waltzer victory would have made the court all-white again.

“We don’t think an all-white judicial system is healthy for the human community,” said Ron Chisom. He is an anti-racism trainer who was the name plaintiff in the suit that led to the creation of a seat on the court for the city of New Orleans, which is 60 percent black.

Many white liberals agreed with Chisom.

“I would vote for a black candidate, all things being equal, or even all things being not quite equal,” said Elizabeth Cole, a white liberal who runs the criminal law clinic at Tulane University. She voted for 4th Circuit Judge Charles Jones against Waltzer.

But it was the other black candidate in the race, Civil District Judge Bernette Johnson, who with the backing of Mayor Marc Morial, who is black, was most direct.

“Fundamental fairness dictates that this is a seat that should go to an African-American,” said Johnson. “This is a civil rights issue.”

And, she went on in a frequently quoted attack on Waltzer: “If someone agrees with civil rights and has all their life, then they need to be with us. And if someone said they agree with us on civil rights, but they’re opposed to us (in this election), then their whole life has been a lie.”

Nonetheless, Waltzer got 49 percent of the vote in the primary – almost winning the seat outright – against 42 percent for Johnson and 9 percent for Jones. But within a week, in the face of rising racial acrimony, Waltzer was out of the race.

Asked if she would have preferred to win it at the polls, Johnson replied, “We don’t need that. We just need representation of the community on the Louisiana Supreme Court.”

“It was raw, it was very raw,” said Elizabeth Cole, who though she voted for Jones, said of Waltzer, “One thing I know about her – her entire adult life has been spent fighting racism.”

The aftermath, Cole said, is deep polarization. “I wonder how long the bitterness will last?”


Written by jonathantilove

July 10, 2012 at 11:24 am

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