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ASHCROFT AND RACISM: BREAKING THE CODE


Norman Solomon

A

surreal mix-up disrupted CNN programming for a few moments on Jan. 17 when the

network switched to live coverage of Colin Powell. While the retired general

appeared on the screen, the audio was the voice of Sen. Edward Kennedy at

another Senate hearing — as the senior senator from Massachusetts railed

against John Ashcroft’s record of opposing civil rights.

Suddenly,

a rattled CNN anchor was apologizing for the technical difficulty. And viewers

were left to ponder the unintended juxtaposition of media images.

We’re

told that the new administration has embraced the concept of diversity based on

merit, with a prime example being the choice of Powell as secretary of state.

But the most important domestic policy job is attorney general. And the Ashcroft

nomination has sparked a firestorm of resistance for many reasons, including his

racial history.

Testifying,

Ashcroft did not lack for requisite sound bites: "I believe that racism is

wrong… I deplore racism and I always will." His wording was always

careful. At one point he said, "I condemn those things that are

condemnable."

Ashcroft

is experienced at speaking in code while exploiting racism for political gain. A

few weeks ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalled that Ashcroft "has

built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis." Twice,

as governor of Missouri, he vetoed bills that sought to give residents of the

heavily black city of St. Louis the same access to voter registration as the

mostly white residents of surrounding suburbs.

During

Ashcroft’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware raised the issue

of his interview with Southern Partisan magazine. That publication is so

favorable toward the days of slavery that it has sold a T-shirt bearing a

picture of Abraham Lincoln accompanied by the Latin words of his assassin,

"Sic Semper Tyrannis" — "Thus Always to Tyrants."

Biden

neglected to bring up the fact that Ashcroft went out of his way to praise

Southern Partisan during his 1998 interview — when he said that the magazine

"helps set the record straight" and lauded it for "defending

Southern patriots" such as Jefferson Davis, the vehement advocate of

slavery who was president of the Confederacy.

And

Biden should have asked why Ashcroft used the interview to tell the readers of

the nation’s leading neo-Confederate magazine: "Traditionalists must do

more. I’ve got to do more. We’ve all got to stand up and speak in this respect,

or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing

their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

After

Biden’s somewhat inept questioning of Ashcroft on the subject of the Southern

Partisan interview, pro-Ashcroft spinners did their best. On the PBS "NewsHour

With Jim Lehrer," syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer told viewers that

Ashcroft was being unfairly pilloried because of his "respect for

Confederate heritage."

Fortunately,

some pundits have confronted the implications of Ashcroft’s warm interview with

Southern Partisan. Several columnists for mainstream daily newspapers cut to the

heart of the matter. In the New York Daily News, Stanley Crouch noted that

Southern Partisan introduced the interview by touting Ashcroft as a

"champion of states’ rights and traditional Southern values."

Crouch

pointed out: "Those are code words for white supremacist ideas about the

Civil War, segregation, genetics and so on. Code is now very important, even to

those in the boggiest wilds of the far right. They, too, know that in politics

it might be best to move under camouflage until you get where you want and can

begin opening serious fire against your enemies."

Right

now, if John Ashcroft gets where he wants, he’ll be moving into the office of

the attorney general of the United States.

In

the Boston Globe, columnist Derrick Z. Jackson has been eloquent about what’s at

stake. "The nation’s top law enforcer cannot be someone who vacillates

between civil rights and Civil War fantasies," Jackson wrote. And he

concluded: "When Ashcroft says the traditionalists must do more, America

should tremble. The nomination is so perverted, it should follow the final path

of his Confederate heroes. It should be driven off in a scorched-earth

campaign."

But

John Ashcroft and his strongest allies — on Capitol Hill and in the news media

– are going all out for Senate approval of his nomination. They have plans. And

they’re not just whistling Dixie.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of

Highly Deceptive Media."

 

 

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