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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Race Bait And Switch

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page A23

"Every Hispanic in America is watching," Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch declared ominously as most Senate Democrats voted last week to oppose the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general.

What was the senator from Utah implying? Hatch and everyone else knew perfectly well that Democrats voted against the new attorney general not because of his ethnicity but because they wanted to hold Gonzales and the White House he served accountable for appalling policies that led to the mistreatment of prisoners. But playing ethnic politics is more profitable for Republicans than arguing about torture, so Hatch let it rip.

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Among the many double standards in U.S. politics is the contradictory attitude of many conservatives toward "political correctness" and the matter of "playing the race card."

Conservatives profess to be horrified by political correctness, which is roughly defined as the habit of stamping out frank discussion about matters related even tangentially to race, class, gender and ethnicity. Whenever a liberal raises concerns over whether a conservative initiative might damage the rights or interests of, say, African Americans or Latinos, that liberal is accused of being "politically correct" and playing the race card -- usually, just to make the sin sound really awful, off "the bottom of the deck."

But increasingly, it is conservatives who are using political correctness to sidestep hard issues. Consider the bait-and-switch in the Gonzales case: Democrats thought it appropriate to use Gonzales's nomination to launch a debate about torture policy. Gonzales is Latino. Therefore, Republicans insisted, Democrats who wanted to debate torture policy were anti-Latino.

The new conservative political correctness actually goes back at least to the battle over Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's nomination. When Thomas was fighting charges that he had sexually harassed an employee, he declared his opponents guilty of a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves." Whatever you thought of the mess that surrounded Thomas's nomination, could he have chosen a more racially charged metaphor?

Just a couple of years ago, Democrats who opposed the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit were accused of being anti-Hispanic in almost exactly the same terms invoked last week in the Gonzales battle.

To reject Estrada, said Sen. Charles Grassley, the normally mild-spoken Iowa Republican, "would be to shut the door on the American dream of Hispanic Americans everywhere." Estrada, of course, was one of several of President Bush's judicial nominees opposed by Democrats largely on philosophical (or, if you prefer, ideological) grounds.

Hatch neatly mixed the ideological and the ethnic. If Estrada were rejected, Hatch said, it would close the door to any nominee who was, "number one, Hispanic, number two, Republican, number three, possibly conservative and, number four, may have some ideas of his or her own."

This was too much for House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez. "Republicans and Senator Hatch in particular can't have it both ways," Menendez said at the time. "They can't blatantly call for the end of affirmative action by characterizing it as a quota system while, at the same time, demanding that we support all Hispanic nominees simply because they are Hispanic."

More recently Bush has invoked racial considerations in support of his plan to privatize Social Security. "African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people," Bush said at a White House Conference on Social Security in January. "That needs to be fixed."

First off, the thing that "needs to be fixed" is the fact that "African American males die sooner than other males do." Moreover, Bush's underlying claim has been largely discredited. Precisely because of those death rates, African American families are especially reliant on Social Security's survivors' benefits, and African Americans need and draw on Social Security's disability benefits at a higher rate than whites. They are also more likely to rely on Social Security payments to stay out of poverty in old age.

But put all that aside. Isn't Bush playing the very "race card" here that liberals are perpetually accused of using as a trump? Why is it wrong for liberals to invoke the injustices of race (or class) when they talk about heath care, child care and taxes, but just ducky for Bush to make similar arguments on behalf of Social Security privatization?

No political camp in our country can claim utter innocence when it comes to racial politics. But is it too much to ask that those who constantly accuse their opponents of using "political correctness" as a bludgeon at least be a trifle embarrassed over how often they wield it themselves?


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