Monday, March 18, 2013

Allen West and Racism

Former Florida Congressman Allen West is definitely a bright star in the Right-wing firmament.  As an African-American conservative, his election to the House of Representatives in 2010 was seen as a coup for that political philosophy and a sign of good things to come.  His stunning loss in 2012 was a huge blow to the right-wing, only made a little more acceptable by the appointment of black conservative Tim Scott to a South Carolina Senate Seat.  What he'll do now is uncertain, although he'll probably, like Sarah Palin and other conservative political losers, make a good living on the lecture and Fox News circuit.

He recently spoke at the CPAC event in Washington and was well received by that highly conservative crowd.  One of my conservative friends on Facebook posted a excerpt of West's speech from that event, and because my friend and I like to tangle (always good-naturedly, of course) on politics, I took a look at the link to see what it was about.

The link from had this to say:
Former Rep. Allen West (R-FL) told the CPAC audience on Thursday that there is nothing a liberal fears more than black conservatives.

"There is nothing on this green earth that a liberal progressive fears more than a black American who wants a better life and a smaller government," West said, noting that he is tired of liberals dividing Americans up into small groups.

Black conservatives--like West and South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott--undermine the left's ability to exploit the race card for political gain, and that is why they are often on the receiving end of the most vitriol. It is why those like Ted Kennedy tried to destroy Clarence Thomas, and the mainstream press continues to ridicule him.

West said the Republic he loves does not know prejudice, and cited Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall who spoke of a "Constitution that was color blind, that neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens."

"How can you not romanticize America and idealize this great land of dreams?" West asked.
Now, Allen West is correct....liberals DO fear black conservatives and their political influence. And occasionally such fear leads to ridicule, sarcasm, etc. of these black conservatives from the left-wing.

But he is incorrect in one major statement he made in that CPAC speech.  I've been doing a lot of reading in the last year or two on early American history, especially the issue of American slavery, and so when he quoted Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall as saying that the Constitution was "color-blind", that didn't sound right to me.  John Marshall was Chief Justice during the first quarter-century of the 19th century, a time when American slavery was actually on the increase and racism in America was perhaps at its all-time worst.

When I googled the quote, it turns out that it wasn't Chief Justice John Marshall who wrote it (he actually owned slaves!), but Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served on the Supreme Court from 1863 to 1896.  And he wrote the quotation in a lone dissent from the Plessey v. Ferguson decision (1895), a crucial decision which upheld Southern segregation laws.

I suppose that was an easy mistake to make.  But unfortunately the meaning of the quotation is completely opposite of what West intended.  He clearly wanted to connect a major early American political figure with the notion that the Constitution was opposed to slavery and racism.  Unfortunately, what he ended up showing is that even as late as 1895, the Supreme Court was still interpreting the Constitution in a way that supported racial discrimination and oppression, and that our modern view of race--complete political and social equality--was still a small minority position, as our nation headed into the 20th century.  True racial equality and justice wouldn't even begin to be achieved until the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

What I find is that conservatives in general have a very difficult time accepting the real American past of slavery and racial discrimination.  Instead they want to see an America that never existed....or as West himself put it, "How can you not romanticize America and idealize this great land of dreams?"

But it seems to me that you'll never understand America--where we've been, where we are, and where we're going--until you understand and accept the truth of vicious American slavery and racism.  In that acknowledgement comes the freedom and wisdom to move on into a brighter future for all of us.



  1. Now, Finally, Alan West's "mis-speak" was simply this: West said the Republic he loves does not know prejudice, and cited Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall who spoke of a "Constitution that was color blind, that neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens."

    That quote comes DIRECTLY from Associate Justice on the Supreme Court John Marshall HARLAN! Alan West’s mis-speak was simply giving credit to a different Court Justice. Easy enough to do considering ALL the mis-speaks of Joe Biden and Barack Obama I would think.

  2. None of these people mis-speak. They all know who said what. Everyone tweaks and some even get caught. So glad there are vigilant 'mis-speak' catchers out there who are willing to post on blogs, tweets, FB, etc. (P.S. Carl so glad you are posting again. Missed your assessments of current events.)

  3. I would tend to disagree with your assessment. It seems we will never be able to move on as long as people keep churning up the past and attempting to create a political divide. This constant criticizem serves to further divide, not unite. When will we ever pay for sins we never committed? How can the left ever be made happy? When there is one party? Only one vision? There are countries that have such a system. But the funny thing is, everyone wants to come here to live. At least for now they do. That may change. Then there will be nowhere to escape to!

  4. Glad you're back. West is articulating hope not yet fully realized. The conservatism you describe is one does not exist. The question is how to best move toward the fully realized hope. On the left, we have Cornell West. On the right we have Col. West. Not a difficult choice, for me at least.