Who has more influence on supreme court: Clarence Thomas or his activist wife?Justice’s wife, Ginni Thomas, sits on the board of conservative group that backs lawsuit seeking to end affirmative action, raising concerns it could present potential conflict of interest Clarence Thomas, the hardline conservative supreme court justice, is facing calls for his recusal in the case over race-based affirmative action in college admissions that the court agreed to hear this week.US supreme court will hear challenge to affirmative action in college admissionRead moreThe case, which is being brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, is the latest potential conflict of interest involving Thomas and his wife Virginia Thomas. Ginni, as she is known, is a prominent rightwing activist who speaks out on a raft of issues that frequently come before the nation’s highest court.A one-person conservative powerhouse, she set up her own lobbying company Liberty Consulting in 2010. By her own description, she has “battled for conservative principles in Washington” for over 35 years.The challenge to the two universities’ race-conscious admissions policies is being brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). Its leader Edward Blum has been a relentless opponent of affirmative action and voting rights laws.His argument that race-based affirmative action is a quota system that discriminates against Asian students is framed with the supreme court’s newly emboldened rightwing majority in mind. A central player in that new six-justice conservative supermajority is Clarence Thomas, who is the longest-serving of the justices and at 73 will be the oldest once Stephen Breyer retires.Justice Thomas’s influence has soared in recent months with the rightward shift of the court following Donald Trump’s three nominations, to the extent that some pundits now dub him the unofficial chief justice of the court.SFFA’s lawsuit seeking to strike down affirmative action has received the enthusiastic backing of the conservative National Association of Scholars. It filed an amicus brief in support of the suit, accusing Harvard admissions officials of being prejudiced against Asian students and stereotyping them as “uninteresting, uncreative and one-dimensional”.Ginni Thomas sits on the advisory board of the National Association of Scholars. Observers are concerned that her position with a group that has intervened in the affirmative action case could present appearances of conflict of interest.Noah Bookbinder, president of the government ethics watchdog Crew, told the Guardian that while supreme court regulations may not legally require Thomas to recuse himself, there were serious questions to answer.“Ginni Thomas is an advisory board member of an organization that has taken a very specific position on a case in front of her husband. That will make it hard for the public to be confident that he’s going to be totally unbiased.”Bookbinder said that in the circumstances “the better course of action would be for him to recuse or for her to cease her involvement in that organization.”The potential appearance of a conflict of interest over the Harvard case was noted in a recent investigation by the New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer that takes a deep dive into the overlapping interests of the couple. The article chronicles in devastating detail the many instances where Ginni’s political activism appears to present problems for the image and integrity of the court.“Ginni Thomas has held so many leadership or advisory positions at conservative pressure groups that it’s hard to keep track of them,” Mayer concluded. “Many, if not all, of these groups have been involved in cases that have come before her husband.”In the most troubling recent instance, Ginni Thomas lent her voice to Trump’s big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. She was vocal on the subject in the buildup to the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 last year that led to the deaths of five people and left more than 100 police officers injured.On the morning of the January 6 itself, Mark Joseph Stern of Slate reported, Thomas posted on her Facebook page words of encouragement for the “Stop the Steal” marchers in Washington. “LOVE MAGA people!!!!”, she said., “GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING!”Soon after the insurrection, Thomas was forced to apologise to her husband’s former supreme court law clerks for comments she made privately to them that appeared to lament Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. The remarks were sent to a private email list called “Thomas Clerk World”.In the emails, disclosed by the Washington Post, she wrote: “Many of us are hurting, after leaving it all on the field, to preserve the best of this country. I feel I have failed my parents who did their best and taught me to work to preserve liberties.”An even more direct intervention in the politics surrounding Trump and the big lie was made last December when Thomas joined 62 other influential conservatives in signing an open letter to the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy. It urged him to expel the Congress members Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger from the Republican party.Their sin, the letter writers opined, was to serve on the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. They described the committee as an “overtly partisan political persecution that brings disrespect to our country’s rule of law [and] legal harassment to private citizens who have done nothing wrong”.Since the Capitol insurrection, the Department of Justice has arrested more than 725 defendants in relation to the storming of the building. Federal prosecutors have charged 225 with assaulting, resisting or impeding police officers, including over 75 charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily harm to an officer.Last week the supreme court rejected attempts by Trump to block the January 6 committee from acquiring his White House records from the time of the attack. There was only one dissent from the bench to that 8-to-1 decision: it came from Clarence Thomas.“Ginni Thomas’s activities are unprecedented in supreme court history in terms of a spouse engaging in issues that are constantly before the court,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a non-partisan group which advocates supreme court reform. “The appearance of impropriety is in itself impropriety – all the supreme court has is the trust of the public, and once you chip away at that you are in trouble.”Roth added that Thomas’s comments in the days before January 6 were clearly problematic given her husband’s vote on the Trump documents. “It’s possible that the January 6 committee has emails between Ginni Thomas and administration officials from that day or the days leading up to it given how vocal she was. That’s definitely a place where Justice Thomas should have recused himself.”Should the rightwing majority around Thomas use its newfound muscle to ban affirmative action, as is widely predicted, it would mark the negation of more than 30 years of settled constitutional law on the matter. What lies ahead bears strong resemblance to Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion legal which the court is probably poised to weaken or even overturn outright.Mayer points out in the New Yorker that an amicus brief was filed in the supreme court case challenging Roe by Robert George who also sits on the advisory board of the National Association of Scholars alongside Ginni Thomas.Roth told the Guardian that a simpler solution to the full recusal of Clarence Thomas from the affirmative action case might exist. That would be to remove the National Association of Scholars’ amicus brief.“There is an easy way to deal with this perceived conflict of interest – strike the amicus brief,” he said.It is established practice in all federal appeals courts, though not in the supreme court, that amicus briefs brought by anybody with a connection to a judge hearing a case are routinely thrown out.The president of the National Association of Scholars, Peter Wood, told the Guardian that he knew of no conflict of interest relating to Thomas’s position on the advisory board. “Ms Thomas’s role is to provide advice to NAS in response to questions I put to her about NAS policy and initiatives. I have never discussed with her any NAS matter that was likely to come before the supreme court,” he said.TopicsUS supreme courtUS politicsLaw (US)The far rightRacefeaturesReuse this content More
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell has been criticised after saying that Black Americans vote ‘in just as high a percentage as Americans’. The comment came after Senate Democrats failed to pass voting rights protections in the run-up to this November’s midterm elections that will determine control of Congress in 2023.
A reporter asked McConnell if he had a message for voters of color who were concerned that, without the John R Lewis Voting Rights Act, they were not going to be able to vote in the midterm. ‘Well, the concern is misplaced because, if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,’ McConnell said
Mitch McConnell’s viral Black voter comments cause widespread furor More
Mitch McConnell’s viral Black voter comments cause widespread furorRepublican Senate minority leader’s comments came after party members blocked voting rights bill and changes to filibuster rule00:33Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has sparked widespread outrage by appearing to refer to African Americans and Americans as two separate groups in comments about Black voters that have since gone viral.Republican voter suppression is rampant. Manchin and Sinema are complicit now | Moira DoneganRead moreThe Kentucky Republican was speaking after Republican senators once again blocked Democrats’ voting rights legislation on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening.Speaking to reporters after the bill failed and the Senate rejected a change to the filibuster rule that could facilitate its passage, McConnell was asked for his message to voters in minority communities who are concerned that voting restrictions being enacted in many states will keep them from the ballot box without new federal laws.“The concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” McConnell said.In fact, studies indicate that voting restrictions, like those passed by 19 states in the past year, disproportionately impact voters of color.Democratic Illinois congressman Bobby Rush swiftly called out McConnell’s comment, saying in a tweet: “African Americans ARE Americans. #MitchPlease”One of Rush’s Democratic colleagues, Diana DeGette of Colorado, echoed that assessment, describing McConnell’s comment as “disgusting”. “African-American voters ARE AMERICANS & to suggest otherwise is about as racist as it gets,” DeGette said in a tweet.African Americans ARE Americans. #MitchPlease https://t.co/N3dSsQ9Jqn pic.twitter.com/SRnTTVJdJ4— Bobby L. Rush (@RepBobbyRush) January 20, 2022
Former Kentucky state senator Charles Booker, who is campaigning for the US senate against Republican Rand Paul, tweeted: “I am no less American than Mitch McConnell” and also said: “I need you to understand that this is who Mitch McConnell is. Being Black doesn’t make you less of an American, no matter what this craven man thinks.”Pastor and activist Talbert Swan quipped that he “can’t qwhite put my finger on” what distinction McConnell might be drawing, tweeting: “I wonder what’s the difference he sees between ‘African-American voters’ and ‘Americans.’”And Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, argued that McConnell’s words were not a slip of the tongue but were instead an accurate reflection of the Republican party’s mindset toward Black voters.“Mitch McConnell’s comments suggesting African Americans aren’t fully American wasn’t a Freudian slip – it was a dog whistle. The same one he has blown for years,” Kenyatta said.Mitch McConnell’s comments suggesting African Americans aren’t fully American wasn’t a Freudian slip — it was a dog whistle. The same one he has blown for years.— Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (@malcolmkenyatta) January 20, 2022
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Louisiana Senate candidate goes viral for smoking marijuana in campaign adDemocrat Gary Chambers Jr smokes blunt in video in effort to ‘destigmatize’ use and raise awareness about racial justice A US Senate candidate from Louisiana has shared a campaign video in which he smokes marijuana in an effort to “destigmatize” its use and raise awareness about racial justice.Gary Chambers Jr, a 37-year-old Democrat and social justice advocate from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is shown seated outdoors in a chair, taking puffs from a blunt.“My first campaign ad, ‘37 Seconds.’ #JustLikeMe,” Chambers tweeted on Tuesday in a caption for the ad, which has spread widely on social media. In it, he recites arrest statistics of Black Americans and marijuana possession.“Every 37 seconds, someone is arrested for possession of marijuana. Since 2010, police have arrested an estimated 7.3 million Americans for violating marijuana laws,” Chambers says, to the sound effect of a ticking clock. “Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people.”He adds: “States waste $3.7bn enforcing marijuana laws every year. Most of the people police are arresting aren’t dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot, just like me.”Writing about the campaign video, Chambers said:“I hope this ad works not only to destigmatize the use of marijuana, but also forces a new conversation that creates the pathway to legalize this beneficial drug, and forgive those who were arrested due to outdated ideology.”In a statement to CNN, he elaborated that it was “long past due that politicians stop pretending to be better or different than the people they represent”, adding: “Some parts of the country are fighting opioid addictions and creating millionaires and better schools from the marijuana industry. Others are creating felonies and destroyed families. I can’t stand for that.’”According to Chambers’ campaign, the ad was shot over the weekend in New Orleans, a city that just recently passed a law to decriminalize marijuana possession. The city council also added a blanket pardon for marijuana possession convictions dating back to 2010, which the council members said would apply to about 10,000 old cases.Last June, the Louisiana governor, John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed a bill into law that reduces the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and at the beginning of this month lawmakers legalized the “smokable” form of medical marijuana under certain conditions.Chambers is seeking to challenge Republican senator John Kennedy, a staunch conservative and Donald Trump ally, in November’s all-party primary.TopicsLouisianaRaceUS politicsUS SenatenewsReuse this content More
MLK is revered today but the real King would make white people uncomfortable Michael HarriotMartin Luther King Jr was a walking, talking example of everything this country despises about the quest for Black liberation Every year, on the third Monday in January, America hosts a Sadie Hawkins-style role-reversal where the entire country pretends to celebrate a man whose achievements and values they spent the previous 364 days ignoring, demonizing and trying to dismantle. Today, your favorite vote suppressors will take a brief respite from disenfranchising Black voters, denying history and increasing inequality to celebrate a real American hero.That’s right, it’s MLK Day!You might think it’s a little disrespectful to refer to a great American hero by his initials but, in this specific case, it’s perfectly fine. The actual Martin Luther King Jr who lived and breathed is not the man most people will be honoring today because that Martin Luther King is dead and gone. No, the man upon whom they will heap their performative praise with social media virtue-signaling is MLK, a caricature of a man whose likeness has been made palatable for white consumption. Like BLM, CRT and USA, the people who King fought against have now managed to flatten a three-dimensional symbol to a three-letter, chant-worthy phrase worthy of demonization or deification.I am not condemning this all-American tradition of gaslighting. I had an imaginary friend growing up and he was not nearly as eloquent as this history – refurbished MLK they have invented. I, more than anyone, can appreciate the effort this country has put into manufacturing a version of King that is based on a true story. Whitewashing an entire human being is not as easy as you think. Plus, I understand why they do it:The real Martin Luther King would make white people uncomfortable.Anyone who knows the unwhitened story of Martin Luther King Jr understands why whitesplaining “what MLK would have wanted” is a favorite pastime of politicians and performative sympathetic social media “allies”. The average American might get the heebie-jeebies if they knew they were celebrating a radical who challenged systemic racism, supported reparations and advocated for a universal basic income.Although, in death, he became one of the most revered figures in US history, for the entirety of the 39 years that King lived and breathed, there wasn’t a single day when the majority of white Americans approved of him. In 1966, Gallup measured his approval rating at 32% positive and 63% negative. That same year, a December Harris poll found that 50% of whites felt King was “hurting the negro cause of civil rights” while only 36% felt he was helping. By the time he died in 1968, three out of four white Americans disapproved of him. In the wake of his assassination, 31% of the country felt that he “brought it on himself”.One does not have to reach back into the historical archives to explain why King was so despised. The sentiments that made him a villain are still prevalent in America today. When he was alive, King was a walking, talking example of everything this country despises about the quest for Black liberation. He railed against police brutality. He reminded the country of its racist past. He scolded the powers that be for income inequality and systemic racism. Not only did he condemn the openly racist opponents of equality, he reminded the legions of whites who were willing to sit idly by while their fellow countrymen were oppressed that they were also oppressors. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it,” King said. “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”To be fair, King readily admitted that it was his goal to make white people uncomfortable. Just before he condemned white moderates in A Letter from Birmingham Jail, he revealed that his goal was to “create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism”. He went on to explain that nonviolent direct action – King’s primary strategy to affect progress – was an attempt to induce the white community to a point where marginalized people’s desperate cries could no longer be ignored.Yet, this new, more compassionate America is just as intolerant when Black Lives Matter demonstrators flood into the streets to protest police brutality. Of course, if teaching Black history wasn’t criminalized as critical race theory, more people might know that the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers’ original intent was to confront their governor about police brutality – namely the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper. The people who believe the NFL should have kicked Colin Kaepernick out of football for his “un-American” protests would have really loathed Roberto Clemente, who convinced his teammates to protest King’s death by refusing to play on Major League Baseball’s opening day in 1968. They were furious when Clemente told his local paper: “If you have to ask Negro players, then we do not have a great country.”I wonder how Tim Scott and Mitch McConnell would’ve felt about that. After all, they both invoked King’s name while claiming that America is not a racist country. But I’m sure MLK would never go as far as painting his place of birth as a racist country.“The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country,” said King days before a white supremacist put a bullet in his face. “Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is.”See how many times someone mentions that quote today.Oh, wait … King made that speech at Grosse Pointe High School, where Michigan’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently passed an anti-CRT bill making it illegal to teach that the “United States is a fundamentally racist country”.Never mind.That’s why, despite what people who cherry-pick quotes from the I Have a Dream speech would have you believe, King has never suggested that white people should be judged “by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin”. In fact, he regularly judged white people to explain the insanity of white supremacy.“In their relations with Negroes, white people discovered that they had rejected the very center of their own ethical professions,” King wrote in 1956. “They could not face the triumph of their lesser instincts and simultaneously have peace within. And so, to gain it, they rationalized – insisting that the unfortunate Negro, being less than human, deserved and even enjoyed second class status… White men soon came to forget that the Southern social culture and all its institutions had been organized to perpetuate this rationalization. They observed a caste system and quickly were conditioned to believe that its social results, which they had created, actually reflected the Negro’s innate and true nature.”Even as a 17-year-old, King used Georgia’s largest newspaper to make the entire state uncomfortable when he reminded the Atlanta Constitution’s readers: “It is fair to remember that almost the total of race mixture in America has come, not at Negro initiative, but by the acts of those very white men who talk loudest of race purity.”To white America, that Martin Luther King Jr was an America-hating, anti-white commie, just like today’s outspoken Black people who are criticized for “playing” all the things that white America hates: the “race card”, the “victim”, and – my favorite – “identity politics”.But, now that King is dead and gone, leaders like Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis will sing hosannas for MLK while demonizing Black Lives Matter and critical race theory as Marxist, un-American race-baiting that poses American values. It is no coincidence that Alabama’s governor George Wallace described King as “perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today. Long before “race-baiting” became a popular term, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond said King “must always have an agitation objective lest he end up in the street one day without a drum to beat or a headline to make”. One of Thurmond’s first acts after leaving the Democratic party to become a Republican was to implore the FBI to investigate King’s activities as a communist. (Years later, Thurmond voted for the MLK holiday.) Even after his death, conservative leaders sought to sully King’s legacy by erasing the prospect of a holiday honoring him. “Rev. King’s motives are misrepresented,” wrote then Ohio senator John Ashbrook. “He sought not to work through the law but around it.”And they won.They only agreed to honor King’s legacy after enough time had passed to sufficiently whitewash the radical who unapologetically fought for liberty and justice for all. This might be why they contend that he “gave his life” for civil rights – as if he agreed to take a projectile from a high-powered rifle to his temple in exchange for a statue, a church fan with his face on it, and a three-day weekend in the future.But, let not your heart be troubled when you hear them shower the memory of Martin Luther King Jr with bouquets of reverence. The people who continue to protect broken systems of criminal justice, education and democracy might not necessarily hate King but they do not love him or anything he stood for.That’s not even an opinion. The polling data proves it. Historical facts prove it. The bits of blood and bone that stained the balcony outside of a Memphis hotel proves it. More importantly, the fact that Black Americans are still fighting the same battles against voter suppression, inequality and the right to have a dream almost 54 years after his death is the most accurate measuring rod of what this nation thinks about Martin Luther King.Perhaps that is the most uncomfortable fact of all.
Michael Harriot is a writer and author of the upcoming book Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America
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Georgia activists warn Biden against a ‘photo-op’ visit that lacks voting rights planPresident and vice-president urged to come to state with meaningful plan or risk visit being dismissed as ‘waste of time’ A coalition of influential political activists in Georgia that boosted turnout in a state that was crucial to Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 is now collectively refusing to attend the visit planned on Tuesday by the US president and Kamala Harris to speak on voting rights. The group had previously warned the president and vice president that they needed to announce a specific plan to get national voting rights legislation passed or risk their high-profile trip to Atlanta being dismissed as “a waste of time”.The racist 1890 law that’s still blocking thousands of Black Americans from votingRead moreOn Monday evening, the coalition of activist groups – Black Voters Matter, Galeo Impact Fund, New Georgia Project Action Fund, Asian American Advocacy Fund, Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council – along with James Woodall, the Georgia NAACP president, announced that “we will not be attending” when Biden and Harris give addresses on Tuesday afternoon.“Instead of giving a speech tomorrow, the US Senate should be voting tomorrow. What we need now, rather than a visit from the president, vice-president and legislators is for the White House and Senate to remain in DC and act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect our freedom to vote,” the groups said in joint statement.Instead of giving a speech tomorrow, the U.S. Senateshould be voting. What we need now, rather than a visit from @POTUS, @VP, and legislators, is for the @WhiteHouse and Senate to remain in DC and act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect our freedom to vote.— Black Voters Matter (@BlackVotersMtr) January 10, 2022
Biden and Harris have planned a joint visit to Atlanta to advocate for flagship bills, currently stalled in the US Senate, to protect voting rights, which are increasingly under threat across the country, including in Georgia.But many Georgia activists and organizers have spoken out to make it clear they don’t support the leadership using the state and its civil rights legacy as “a photo-op” without a meaningful plan of legislative action.“If this is just a rhetorical exercise, just an attempt to perform advocacy, then I think it might be a waste of time,” Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project voting rights advocacy, told the Guardian prior to the news that the coalition of groups will stay away.She said it was the work of local organizers that helped deliver the Democrats’ White House and Senate victories, and she’s pushing for the elimination of the filibuster rule that requires 60 senators to bring laws to a vote, while the Democrats only have 50 seats and Republicans won’t support the voting rights legislation.“There needs to be a federal standard for elections or the 2022 midterms are going to be chaotic,” Ufot said.Last Thursday the coalition of activists released a scorching letter warning the leaders not to travel without a “finalized plan” for new laws.It noted that Georgia voters “made history” to flip the state blue in November 2020, the first time it put a Democrat in the White House since 1992, with a huge turnout from Black voters in particular, then also elected Georgia Democrats Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff to give the party the edge in the US Senate.The letter said of those Georgia voters: “In return, a visit has been forced on them, requiring them to accept political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises. Such an empty gesture, without concrete action, without signs of real, tangible work, is unacceptable.Don’t come to Atlanta without a plan to pass voting laws! – @BlackVotersMtr @ngpaction @AsianAAF @GALEOImpactFund #GaPol #Georgiahttps://t.co/VsJcHyDmzH— GALEO Impact Fund (@GALEOImpactFund) January 7, 2022
“As civil rights leaders and advocates, we reject any visit by President Biden that does not include an announcement of a finalized voting rights plan that will pass both chambers, not be stopped by the filibuster, and be signed into law.”The bills blocked by Senate Republicans using the filibuster are the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.The latter would create a “baseline national standard for voting access”, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.The former, named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights activist, would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibiting states with a history of voter suppression from making changes to voting laws without federal approval, a key provision removed by a 2013 supreme court decision.Georgia passed a new voter restriction law in spring 2021 dubbed “Jim Crow in the 21st century” by Biden.Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer hopes to change the filibuster rules if necessary to pass national voting rights legislation. But he faces opposition from centrist Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who also stand in the way of Biden’s Build Back Better bill.Cliff Albright, executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said that potential speeches on Tuesday without a specific plan of action could send the message that the administration believes it’s possible to continue to “out-organize voter suppression”.“That’s just a bad strategy,” Albright said. “It’s not that we don’t want the president talking about these issues, but we don’t want it to just be a photo-op.”James Woodall, the Georgia NAACP president, said activists understand the challenges but it’s time for the White House to figure out how to make change.“We understand civics. We get it. They’re not senators and there are processes in place, like the filibuster, that require reform. But, that’s not our job,” Woodall said.“Our job was to get Ossoff and Warnock elected and to ensure that Donald Trump was not the president… Biden won and it was all because of what we did here in Georgia. Now, we’re asking them to do their part, which is to protect democracy.”Atlanta’s Bishop Reginald Jackson of the AME church, who pushed Georgia-based Coca Cola and Delta Air Lines to criticize voter suppression, said he “strongly supports” the visit.“They’ll be coming at a time when our democracy and its future is at great risk,” he said.But Ufot warned that if election integrity isn’t protected in time for midterm elections: “We’re talking about losing a generation of voters who think this is a Banana republic and their vote doesn’t matter.”TopicsGeorgiaUS voting rightsJoe BidenKamala HarrisUS politicsRacenewsReuse this content More
US Capitol attack: is the government’s expanded online surveillance effective?The Brennan Center for Justice explains how the US government monitors social media – and how ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts can threaten civil rights and privacy In the year since the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, federal authorities have faced intense scrutiny for failing to detect warning signs on social media.After the 6 January insurrection, the US agency tasked with combatting terrorism and extremism, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has expanded its monitoring of online activity, with officials touting a new domestic terrorism intelligence branch focused on tracking online threats and sharing information about possible attacks. A senior DHS official told the Guardian this week the department aims to track “narratives known to provoke violence” and platforms that have been linked to threats. The primary goal, the official said, was to warn potential targets when they should enhance security.In the days leading up to the anniversary of the riot, for example, the agency saw an uptick in activity on platforms tied to white supremacists and neo-Nazis and warned law enforcement partners when appropriate, the official said. This monitoring relies on DHS analysts, not artificial intelligence, and doesn’t target “ideologies”, the official added, but rather “calls for violence”.The Guardian spoke with Harsha Panduranga, counsel with the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a not-for-profit organization that has tracked police and government entities’ online surveillance programs, about the US government’s monitoring of social media in the wake of 6 January.Although DHS says its online efforts are consistent with privacy protections, civil rights and civil liberties, the expansion of social media monitoring still raised concerns, Panduranga argued. Without proper safeguards, a new report from the center warns, the expanded social media surveillance could be both ineffective at preventing attacks and harmful to marginalized groups that end up targeted and criminalized by “counter-terrorism” efforts.The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Which US government agencies monitor online activity?Many federal agencies monitor social media, including DHS, the FBI, the state department, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the US Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the US Marshals Service and the Social Security Administration (SSA). Our work has primarily focused on DHS, FBI and the state department, which make extensive use of social media for monitoring, targeting and information collection.Revealed: LAPD used ‘strategic communications’ firm to track ‘defund the police’ onlineRead moreWhy do these agencies monitor civilians’ social media?The FBI and DHS use social media monitoring to assist with investigations and to detect potential threats. Some of those investigations do not require a showing of criminal activity. For example, FBI agents can open an “assessment” [the lowest-level investigative stage] simply on the basis of preventing crime or terrorism, and without a factual basis. During assessments, FBI agents can search publicly available online information.Subsequent investigative stages, which require some factual basis, open the door for more invasive surveillance, such as the recording of private online communications. The FBI also awarded a contract to a firm in December 2020 to scour social media and proactively identify “national security and public safety-related events” not yet reported to law enforcement.DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division says it relies on social media when investigating matters ranging from civil immigration violations to terrorism. Government entities also monitor social media for “situational awareness” to coordinate a response to breaking events.How broad is this surveillance?Some DHS divisions, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the National Operations Center (NOC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), keep tabs on a broad list of websites and keywords being discussed on social media platforms. The agencies’ “privacy impact assessments” suggest there are few limits on the content that can be reviewed. Some assessments list a sweeping range of keywords that are monitored, including “attack”, “public health”, “power outage”, and “jihad”. Immigration authorities also use social media to screen travelers and immigrants coming into the US and even to monitor them while they live here. People applying for a range of immigration benefits also undergo social media checks to verify information in their application and determine whether they pose a security risk. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents can also look at publicly available social media content for a range of investigations, including probing “potential criminal activity” and are authorized to operate undercover online and monitor private communications.How has this surveillance expanded in the wake of the insurrection?The main new DHS effort we’re aware of is an initiative monitoring social media to try to identify “narratives” giving rise to violence. DHS says they’ll use social media to pinpoint tips, leads and trends. In September, for example, DHS warned there could be another attack on the Capitol in connection with a Justice for J6 rally. But reports showed that law enforcement personnel [and journalists] outnumbered the protesters, and there was no indication of violence at the protest. This shows how difficult it is to predict violence relying on social media chatter.How concerned are you about the potential for civil rights violations in the wake of 6 January?January 6 seems to be accelerating this emphasis on social media monitoring without sufficient safeguards. And the monitoring to identify “narratives” that may lead to violence is broad enough to sweep in constitutionally protected speech and political discussion on various issues. We’ve long seen that government monitoring of social media harms people in a number of ways, including wrongly implicating an individual or group in criminal behavior based on their online activity; misinterpreting the meaning of social media activity, sometimes with severe consequences; suppressing people’s willingness to talk or connect openly online; and invading individuals’ privacy. Authorities have characterized ordinary activity, like wearing a particular sneaker brand or making common hand signs, or social media connections, as evidence of criminal or threatening behavior. This kind of assumption can have high-stakes consequences.Can you share some specific examples that illustrate these consequences?In 2020, DHS and the FBI disseminated reports to law enforcement in Maine warning of potential violence at anti-police brutality demonstrations based on fake social media posts by rightwing provocateurs. Police in Kansas arrested a teenager in 2020 on suspicion of inciting a riot reportedly based on a mistaken interpretation of his Snapchat post, in which he was actually denouncing violence. In 2019, DHS officials barred a Palestinian student arriving to study at Harvard from entering the country allegedly based on the content of his friends’ social media posts. The student said he had neither written nor engaged with the posts, which were critical of the US government. In another case of guilt by association, the NYPD was accused of wrongly arresting a 19-year-old for attempted murder in 2012 in part because prosecutors argued his “likes” and photos on social media proved he was a member of a violent gang. That same year, British travelers were interrogated at Los Angeles international airport and sent back to the UK reportedly due to a border agent’s misinterpretation of a joking tweet.Is social media surveillance effective at identifying legitimate threats?Broad social media monitoring for threat detection purposes generates reams of useless information, crowding out information on real public safety concerns. Government officials and assessments have repeatedly recognized that this dynamic makes it difficult to distinguish a sliver of genuine threats from the millions of everyday communications that do not warrant law enforcement attention. The former acting chief of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) said last year, “Actual intent to carry out violence can be difficult to discern from the angry, hyperbolic – and constitutionally protected – speech and information commonly found on social media.” And a 2021 internal review of I&A reported that searching “for true threats of violence before they happen is a difficult task filled with ambiguity”. The review observed that personnel collected information on a “broad range of general threats” that provided “information of limited value”, including “memes, hyperbole, statements on political organizations and other protected first amendment speech”. Similar concerns cropped up with the DHS’s pilot programs to use social media to vet refugees.US citizens v FBI: Will the government face charges for illegal surveillance?Read moreWhat groups are most impacted by this kind of surveillance?Black, brown and Muslim people, as well as activists and dissenters more generally, are especially vulnerable to being falsely labeled as threats based on social media activity. Both the FBI and DHS have monitored Black Lives Matter activists. In 2017, the FBI created a specious terrorism threat category called “Black Identity Extremism” , which can be read to include protests against police violence. This category has been used to rationalize continued surveillance of Black activists, including monitoring of social media activity. In 2020, DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis used social media and other tools to target and monitor racial justice protestors in Portland, Oregon, justifying this surveillance by pointing to the threat of vandalism to Confederate monuments. DHS then disseminated intelligence reports on journalists reporting on this overreach. Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities have often been particular targets of the US government’s discriminatory travel and immigration screening practices, including social media screening.How do you think the government should be responding to the intelligence failures of 6 January?A Senate committee report from last year found that DHS failed to produce a specific warning connected to what would happen on 6 January. An FBI field office had circulated a warning about an online threat with a specific call for violence, but it didn’t convince officials to better prepare for the attack. I think one takeaway from these failures is that broadly monitoring social media for scary things people are saying, without any further reason to suspect wrongdoing, tends to flood warning systems with useless information. This makes it harder to pick out what matters and sweeps in thousands of people who haven’t or wouldn’t do anything violent. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies already have ample and potent tools to investigate far-right violence without relying on indiscriminate social media monitoring, but they are not using these tools as effectively as they should. Instigators of the 6 January riot, for example, were members of groups that were already known to law enforcement. Some of them had previously participated in organized far-right violence, yet authorities did not bring charges or fully investigate the criminal activities of these organizations. So more indiscriminate surveillance isn’t the answer – in fact, such measures are much more likely to harm the very communities that are already at greater risk.TopicsUS Capitol attackSurveillanceUS politicsProtestActivismRacefeaturesReuse this content More
America is now in fascism’s legal phase The history of racism in the US is fertile ground for fascism. Attacks on the courts, education, the right to vote and women’s rights are further steps on the path to toppling democracy“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”So began Toni Morrison’s 1995 address to Howard University, entitled Racism and Fascism, which delineated 10 step-by-step procedures to carry a society from first to last.Morrison’s interest was not in fascist demagogues or fascist regimes. It was rather in “forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems”. The procedures she described were methods to normalize such solutions, to “construct an internal enemy”, isolate, demonize and criminalize it and sympathizers to its ideology and their allies, and, using the media, provide the illusion of power and influence to one’s supporters.Morrison saw, in the history of US racism, fascist practices – ones that could enable a fascist social and political movement in the United States.Writing in the era of the “super-predator” myth (a Newsweek headline the next year read, “Superpredators: Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?”), Morrison unflinchingly read fascism into the practices of US racism. Twenty-five years later, those “forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems” are closer than ever to winning a multi-decade national fight.The contemporary American fascist movement is led by oligarchical interests for whom the public good is an impediment, such as those in the hydrocarbon business, as well as a social, political, and religious movement with roots in the Confederacy. As in all fascist movements, these forces have found a popular leader unconstrained by the rules of democracy, this time in the figure of Donald Trump.My father, raised in Berlin under the Nazis, saw in European fascism a course that any country could take. He knew that US democracy was not exceptional in its capacity to resist the forces that shattered his family and devastated his youth. My mother, a court stenographer in US criminal courts for 44 years, saw in the anti-Black racism of the American legal system parallels to the vicious antisemitism she experienced in her youth in Poland, attitudes which enabled eastern European complicity with fascism. And my grandmother, Ilse Stanley, wrote a memoir, published in 1957, of her experiences in 1930s Berlin, later appearing on the US television show This is Your Life to discuss it. It is a memoir of the normalization years of German fascism, well before world war and genocide. In it, she recounts experiences with Nazi officers who assured her that in nazism’s vilification of Jews, they certainly did not mean her.Philosophers have always been at the forefront in the analysis of fascist ideology and movements. In keeping with a tradition that includes the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, I have been writing for a decade on the way politicians and movement leaders employ propaganda, centrally including fascist propaganda, to win elections and gain power.Often, those who employ fascist tactics do so cynically – they do not really believe the enemies they target are so malign, or so powerful, as their rhetoric suggests. Nevertheless, there comes a tipping point, where rhetoric becomes policy. Donald Trump and the party that is now in thrall to him have long been exploiting fascist propaganda. They are now inscribing it into fascist policy.Fascist propaganda takes place in the US in already fertile ground – decades of racial strife has led to the United States having by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. A police militarized to address the wounds of racial inequities by violence, and a recent history of unsuccessful imperial wars have made us susceptible to a narrative of national humiliation by enemies both internal and external. As WEB Du Bois showed in his 1935 masterwork Black Reconstruction, there is a long history of business elites backing racism and fascism out of self-interest, to divide the working class and thereby destroy the labor movement.The novel development is that a ruthless would-be autocrat has marshalled these fascist forces and shaped them into a cult, with him as its leader. We are now well into the repercussions of this latter process – where fascist lies, for example, the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, have begun to restructure institutions, notably electoral infrastructure and law. As this process unfolds, slowly and deliberately, the media’s normalization of these processes evokes Morrison’s tenth and final step: “Maintain, at all costs, silence.”Constructing an enemyTo understand contemporary US fascism, it is useful to consider parallels to 20th century history, both where they succeed and where they fail.Hitler was a genocidal antisemite. Though fascism involves disregard for human life, not all fascists are genocidal. Even Nazi Germany turned to genocide only relatively late in the regime’s rule. And not all fascists are antisemitic. There were Italian Jewish fascists. Referring to the successful assimilation of Jews into all phases of Weimar era German life, my father warned me, “if they had chosen someone else, some of us would have been among the very best Nazis.” We American Jews feel firmly at home. Now, where the fascist movement’s internal enemies are leftists and movements for Black racial equality, there certainly could be fascist American Jews.Germany’s National Socialist party did not take over a mainstream party. It started as a small, radical, far-right anti-democratic party, which faced different pressures as it strove to achieve greater electoral success.Despite its radical start, the Nazi party dramatically increased its popularity over many years in part by strategically masking its explicit antisemitic agenda to attract moderate voters, who could convince themselves that the racism at the core of Nazi ideology was something the party had outgrown. It represented itself as the antidote to communism, using a history of political violence in the Weimar Republic, including street clashes between communists and the far right, to warn of a threat of violent communist revolution. It attracted support from business elites by promising to smash labor unions. The Nazis portrayed socialists, Marxists, liberals, labor unions, the cultural world and the media as representatives of, or sympathizers with, this revolution. Once in power, they bore down on this message.In his 1935 speech, Communism with its Mask Off, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels described Bolshevism carrying “on a campaign, directed by the Jews, with the international underworld, against culture as such”. By contrast, “National Socialism sees in all these things – in [private] property, in personal values and in nation and race and the principles of idealism – these forces which carry on every human civilization and fundamentally determine its worth.”The Nazis recognized that the language of family, faith, morality and homeland could be used to justify especially brutal violence against an enemy represented as being opposed to all these things. The central message of Nazi politics was to demonize a set of constructed enemies, an unholy alliance of communists and Jews, and ultimately to justify their criminalization.Contrary to popular belief, the Nazi government of the 1930s was not genocidal, nor were its notorious concentration camps packed with Jewish prisoners, at least until the November pogrom of 1938. The main targets of the regime’s concentration camps were, initially, communists and socialists. The Nazi regime urged vigilante violence against its other targets, such as Jews, separating themselves from this violence by obscuring the role of agents of the state. During this time, it was possible for many non-Jewish Germans to deceive themselves about the brutal nature of the regime, to tell themselves that its harsh means were necessary to protect the German nation from the insidious threat of communism.Violent militias occupied an ambiguous role between state and non-state actors. The SS began as violent Nazi supporters, before becoming an independent arm of the government. The message of violent law and order created a culture that influenced all the Nazi state’s institutions. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny, “for violence to transform not just the atmosphere but also the system, the emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion have to be incorporated into the training of armed guards.”In the US, the training of police as “warriors”, together with the unofficial replacement of the American flag by the thin blue line flag, auger poorly about the democratic commitments of this institution.For a far-right party to become viable in a democracy, it must present a face it can defend as moderate, and cultivate an ambiguous relationship to the extreme views and statements of its most explicit members. It must maintain a pretense of the rule of law, characteristically by projecting its own violations of it on to its opponents.In the case of the takeover of the mainstream rightwing party by a far-right anti-democratic movement, the pretense must be stronger. The movement must contend with members of that party who are faithful to procedural elements of democracy, such as the principle of one voter one vote, or that the loser of a fair election give up power – in the United States today, figures such as Adam Kinzinger and Elizabeth Cheney. A fascist social and political party faces pressure both to mask its connection to and to cultivate violent racist supporters, as well as its inherently anti-democratic agenda.In the face of the attack on the US capital on 6 January, even the most resolute skeptic must admit that Republican politicians have been at least attempting to cultivate a mass of violent vigilantes to support their causes. Kyle Rittenhouse is becoming a hero to Republicans after showing up in Kenosha, WI as an armed vigilante citizen, and killing two men. Perhaps there are not enough potential Kyle Rittenhouses in the US to justify fear of massive armed vigilante militias enforcing a 2024 election result demanded by Donald Trump. But denying that Trump’s party is trying to create such a movement is, at this point, deliberate deception.Black rebellion, white backlashStreet violence proved invaluable to the National Socialists in their path to power. The Nazis instigated and exacerbated violence in the streets, then demonized their opponents as enemies of the German people who must be dealt with harshly. Trump’s rise followed Black protest, at times violent, of police brutality in Ferguson and Baltimore. More recently, the murder of George Floyd and a historic protest movement in the US in the late spring has given fuel to fascist misrepresentation.All of these recent developments take place as only the latest in a long US history of Black rebellion against white supremacist ideology and structures, and a parallel history of white backlash.White vigilante groups regularly formed in reaction to Black rebellions, to “defend their families and property against Black rebellion”, the historian Elizabeth Hinton writes in her recent history of these rebellions. Hinton shows that police often acted in concert with these groups. For decades, the instigator of these rebellions has typically been an incident or incidents of police violence against members of the community, following a long period of often violent over-policing that exacerbated these communities’ grievances.Street movements in the US have often been accompanied by vigorous campus protests, from the protests against the Vietnam war of the 1960s, to recent campus protests for racial justice that attracted media rebuke (paradoxically, for “chilling free speech”). Politicians in both parties have feasted on these moments, using them to troll for votes. During these episodes of protest and rebellion, US politicians from Barry Goldwater onwards, placing campus protests together with Black rebellion against over-policing, have encouraged harsh law and order policing and crackdowns on leftists. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top advisers, said that Nixon’s campaign and administration “had two enemies: the anti-war left and Black people”, and invented the drug war to target both:
You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Politicians have shown less interest in addressing the underlying conditions that lead to violence in poor Black urban communities – the widespread availability of guns, the massive and persistent racial wealth gap and the effects of violent policing and mass incarceration. And why should they? As long as these underlying conditions persist, politicians of either party can run for office by milking fear and promising a harsh law and order response. Morrison’s 1995 address is a warning that these conditions are ripe for harnessing by a fascist movement, one targeting democracy itself.In its most recent iteration, in the form of the reaction against Black Lives Matter protesters and the demonization of antifa and student activists, a fascist social and political movement has been avidly stoking the flames for mass rightwing political violence, by justifying it against these supposed internal enemies.Rachel Kleinfield, in an October 2021 article, documents the rise of the legitimation of political violence in the US. According to the article, the “bedrock idea uniting right-wing communities who condone violence is that white Christian men in the United States are under cultural and demographic threat and require defending – and that it is the Republican Party and Donald Trump, in particular, who will safeguard their way of life.”This kind of justification of political violence is classically fascist – a dominant group threatened by the prospect of gender, racial and religious equality turning to a leader who promises a violent response.How to topple a democracyWe are now in fascism’s legal phase. According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with the threat of violent leftist and Black rebellion being used to justify them. That this is happening at the same time that multiple electoral bills enabling a Republican state legislature majority to overturn their state’s election have been enacted suggests that the true aim of bills criminalizing protest is to have a response in place to expected protests against the stealing of a future election (as a reminder of fascism’s historical connection to big business, some of these laws criminalize protest near gas and oil lines).The Nazis used Judeo-Bolshevism as their constructed enemy. The fascist movement in the Republican party has turned to critical race theory instead. Fascism feeds off a narrative of supposed national humiliation by internal enemies. Defending a fictional glorious and virtuous national past, and presenting its enemies as deviously maligning the nation to its children, is a classic fascist strategy to stoke fury and resentment. Using the bogeyman of critical race theory, 29 states have introduced bills to restrict teaching about racism and sexism in schools, and 13 states have enacted such bans.The key to democracy is an informed electorate. An electorate that knows about persisting racial injustice in the United States along all its dimensions, from the racial wealth gap to the effects of over-policing and over-incarceration, will be unsurprised by mass political rebellion in the face of persistent refusal to face up to these problems. An electorate ignorant of these facts will react not with understanding, but with uncomprehending fear and horror at Black political unrest.Sometimes, you trace a fascist movement to its genesis in Nazi influence on its leaders, as with India’s RSS. In the United States, the causal relations run the other way around. As James Whitman shows in his 2017 book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, the Jim Crow era in the United States influenced Nazi law. In 2021, legislators in 19 states passed laws making access to the ballot more difficult, some with specific (and clearly intentional) disparate impact on minority communities (as in Texas). By obscuring in our education system facts about this era, one can mask the reemergence of legislation that borrows from its strategies.Indeed, the very tactic of restricting politically vital information to schoolchildren is itself borrowed from the Jim Crow era. Chapter 9 of Carter G Woodson’s 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, is called Political Education Neglected. In it, Woodson describes how history was taught “to enslave the Negroes’ mind”, by whitewashing the brutality of slavery and the actual roots and causes of racial disparities. In Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Jarvis Givens documents the strategies Black educators used to convey real history in the constricted environments of Jim Crow schools, strategies that, tragically, will again become necessary for educators to take up again today.Fascist ideology strictly enforces gender roles and restricts the freedom of women. For fascists, it is part of their commitment to a supposed “natural order” where men are on top. It is also integral to the broader fascist strategy of winning over social conservatives who might otherwise be unhappy with the endemic corruption of fascist rule. Far-right authoritarian leaders across the world, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have targeted “gender ideology”, as nazism targeted feminism. Freedom to choose one’s role in society, when it goes against a supposed “natural order”, is a kind of freedom fascism has always opposed.According to National Socialist ideology, abortion, at any point in pregnancy, was considered to be murder. Just as it was acceptable to murder disabled people and other groups whose identities were considered dangerous to the health of the “Aryan race”, it was acceptable to perform abortions on members of these groups. In the first six years of Nazi rule, from 1933 to 1939, there was a harsh crackdown on the birth control movement. Led by the Gestapo, there was a punitive campaign against doctors who performed abortions on Aryan women. The recent attack on abortion rights, and the coming attack on birth control, led by a hard-right supreme court, is consistent with the hypothesis that we are, in the United States, facing a real possibility of a fascist future.If you want to topple a democracy, you take over the courts. Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by almost 3m votes, and yet has appointed one-third of supreme court, three youthful far-right judges who will be spending decades there. The Roberts court has for more than a decade consistently enabled an attack on democracy, by hollowing out the Voting Rights Act over time, unleashing unlimited corporate money into elections, and allowing clearly partisan gerrymanders of elections. There is every reason to believe that the court will allow even the semblance of democracy to crumble, as long as laws are passed by gerrymandered Republican statehouses that make anti-democratic practices, including stealing elections, legal.There has been a growing fascist social and political movement in the United States for decades. Like other fascist movements, it is riddled with internal contradictions, but no less of a threat to democracy. Donald Trump is an aspiring autocrat out solely for his own power and material gain. By giving this movement a classically authoritarian leader, Trump shaped and exacerbated it, and his time in politics has normalized it.Donald Trump has shown others what is possible. But the fascist movement he now leads preceded him, and will outlive him. As Toni Morrison warned, it feeds off ideologies with deep roots in American history. It would be a grave error to think it cannot ultimately win.
This article was amended on 22 December 2021 to fix a typo.
TopicsThe far rightUS politicsTrump administrationRaceRace in educationfeaturesReuse this content More
‘Historical accident’: how abortion came to focus white, evangelical angerA short history of the Roe decision’s emergence as a signature cause for the right Public opinion on abortion in the US has changed little since 1973, when the supreme court in effect legalized the procedure nationally in its ruling on the case Roe v Wade. According to Gallup, which has the longest-running poll on the issue, about four in five Americans believe abortion should be legal, at least in some circumstances.Yet the politics of abortion have opened deep divisions in the last five decades, which have only grown more profound in recent years of polarization. In 2021, state legislators have passed dozens of restrictions to abortion access, making it the most hostile year to abortion rights on record.This schism played out in the US supreme court on Wednesday, when the new conservative-dominated bench heard oral arguments in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the most important abortion rights case since Roe.In somber arguments, justices questioned whether the state of Mississippi should be allowed to ban nearly all abortions at 15 weeks gestation, nine weeks earlier than the current accepted limit. While the ruling, expected by the end of June next year, is far from a foregone conclusion, justices in the conservative majority appeared to signal their support for severely restricting abortion access, a right Americans have exercised for two generations.The divisive question among the conservative majority appeared to be whether abortion should be restricted to earlier than 15 weeks, weakening Roe, or if the precedent set in Roe should be overturned entirely.Summarizing Mississippi’s argument, the conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was controversially nominated to the court by Donald Trump in 2018, said “the constitution is neither pro-life nor pro-choice … and leaves the issue to the people to resolve in the democratic process.” If the issue is returned to the states, 26 states would be “certain or likely” to ban or severely restrict abortion access.The religious right in the US has been laying the foundations of this decisive challenge to abortion rights for years. According to historians and researchers, it has taken decades of political machinations for the campaign to reach this zenith. The movement has intersected with nearly every major issue in American politics for the last five decades, from segregation to welfare reform to campaign finance.The conservative anti-abortion movement “was a kind of historical accident”, said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Dartmouth University and author of the recently released book Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.It wasn’t until Republican strategists sought to “deflect attention away from the real narrative”, which Balmer argues was racial integration, “and to advocate on behalf of the fetus”, that largely apolitical evangelical Christians and Catholics would be united within the Republican party. Balmer argues that advocacy was nascent in 1969.Although the supreme court decision in Brown v Board of Education called for an end to racial segregation in schools in 1954, many schools continued de facto segregation 14 years later.Then, the supreme court weighed in again, and ordered schools to integrate “immediately”. This prompted white southerners to form “segregation academies”, whites-only private Christian schools which registered as tax-exempt non-profit charities. African American parents in Mississippi sued, arguing this was taxpayer-subsidized discrimination. They won, and in 1971, tax authorities revoked the non-profit status of 111 segregated private schools.In Balmer’s view, revoking the non-profit status of segregated private schools catalyzed evangelical Christian leaders, but even in the early 1970s defense of racial segregation was not a populist message. However, defense of the fetus could be.Republican operations began to test abortion as a vessel for the collective anxieties of evangelical Christians, and Roe as a shorthand for government intrusion into the family after the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Eventually, abortion became the reason for evangelicals to deny the Democratic president Jimmy Carter, himself an evangelical Christian, a second term.Evangelical opposition to abortion “wasn’t an anti-abortion movement per se”, said Elmer L Rumminger, an administrator at the then whites-only Christian college Bob Jones University, said in Balmer’s book. “For me it was government intrusion into private education.”At the same time, the anti-feminist Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly was connecting anxiety about women’s changing roles in society with abortion. In a 1972 essay, she described the feminist movement as “anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion,” and the writing of contemporaneous feminists as “a series of sharp-tongued, high-pitched whining complaints by unmarried women”.By the 1978 midterm congressional elections, Paul Weyrich, one of the architects of modern conservatism, was testing abortion as a campaign issue with evangelical Christians with a small fund from the Republican National Committee. Roman Catholic volunteers distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets in church parking lots in Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota, and their efforts prevailed. Four anti-abortion Republicans ousted Democrats.The groundwork laid by Schlafly and Weyrich made “Roe shorthand for a host of worries about sex equality and sexuality”, wrote Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and author of After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate.“Even as late as August 1980, the Reagan-Bush campaign wasn’t certain abortion would work for them as a political issue,” said Balmer. However, as Reagan sailed to victory, he was carried in part by religious voters hooked on the promise of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. When a constitutional amendment failed, a new strategy took hold: control the supreme court.Historians said segregation was only one part of a complex and multifaceted movement, which has long seen itself as a human rights campaign. By the 1970s, “there was an anti-abortion movement which was influential and pretty effective in the states that was ready for the new right to work with,” said Ziegler.In the coming years, Reagan would recast the politics of reproduction through a new racist prism, as he introduced the mythical stereotype of the “welfare queen”. The image allowed politicians to portray “all single mothers as persons of color and all persons of color as dependent on public assistance”, wrote the reproductive rights activists Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger in their 2017 book Reproductive Justice: An Introduction.The image divorced family wellbeing and welfare support from abortion access and rights. Thus, the “broad middle ground” of issues that anti-abortion and pro-choice voters agreed on became “firmly partisan”, said Julia Briggs, author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics, and professor and chair of women, gender and sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.By the 1990s, anti-abortion activists had professionalized. So called “right to life” organizations rallied the base, and religious law firms dedicated themselves to fighting abortion in courts. The supreme court weighed in on abortion again in 1992, in another watershed case called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v Casey. The case allowed states to restrict abortion, as long as such restrictions did not create an “undue burden” on the right to abortion and served the purpose of either protecting the woman’s health or unborn life.States hostile to abortion passed “Trap” laws, or targeted regulations of abortion providers, which required abortion clinics to become the “functional equivalents of hospitals”, according to legal scholars. States instituted 24-hour waiting periods for abortion, state-mandated inaccurate information and invasive sonograms.Many clinics went out of business as they struggled to meet the expensive new requirements, and pregnant people struggled to obtain abortions as they had to travel further and spend more to find a provider.These laws would also play an outsized role in the Dobbs hearing. Conservative justices debated whether they could keep the “undue burden” standard while jettisoning a central tenet of Roe, that women can terminate a pregnancy until a fetus can survive outside the womb, or “viability”.“Why is 15 weeks not enough time?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, in the hearings.The politics of reproduction spurred new debates on acceptable restrictions on birth control, stem cell research and sex education during the George W Bush administration. But it was the election of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, that supercharged Republican opposition.In 2010, the Tea Party swept the midterm elections. More extreme candidates entered Congress and statehouses through the practice of challenging incumbents in districts gerrymandered to be reliably Republican. And, in a decision not typically thought of as an anti-abortion victory, the chief counsel for National Right to Life successfully argued a supreme court case that would unleash vast sums of dark money into American elections – Citizens United v Federal Election Commission.“The anti-abortion movement, over time with other conservative allies, worked to change things like the rules of campaign finance for the conservative movement,” said Ziegler. “Anti-abortion lawyers played an integral part in cases like Citizens United.”By the time Donald Trump ran for president, evangelical Protestants had become more anti-abortion than the Catholic voters who were once the bedrock of anti-abortion advocacy. Seventy-seven per cent of white evangelical Christians say the procedure should be illegal, compared with just 43% of Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center.Trump harnessed the anger of white evangelicals for a victory in 2016, with a mix of hardline anti-abortion politicsand xenophobic nativism. Trump abandoned his 1999 stance as “very pro-choice”, saying there should be “punishment” for women who have abortions, and promised to nominate conservative supreme court justices who would “automatically” overturn Roe v Wade.Today, overwhelmingly white “Christian nationalist” voters believe their religion should be privileged in public life, a goal to be attained “by any means necessary”, according to social researchers such as Indiana University associate professor Andrew Whitehead.Supreme court decisions are notoriously difficult to predict, but abortion rights activists believe Wednesday’s hearing shows that conservative justices are ready to significantly weaken or perhaps overturn Roe v Wade. If that happens, young, poor people of color will disproportionately suffer, forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Such an outcome is so severe human rights advocates have said state abortion bans would violate United Nations conventions against torture and place the US in the company of a shrinking number of countries with abortion bans.On Wednesday, the court’s three outnumbered liberal justices argued neither the science, the enormous consequences of pregnancy nor the American polity had changed since the court last decided a watershed abortion rights case. But, because of the work of anti-abortion politicians, the makeup of the court’s bench had.“Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the constitution and its reading are just political acts?” asked the liberal justice Sonia Sotomayor. “I don’t see how it is possible.”TopicsAbortionRoe v WadeUS politicsRaceUS supreme courtfeaturesReuse this content More