To top off the anger and sadness of a terrible day when the Senate upheld President Bush's shameful veto of a civil rights bill, there was David Duke, the overt racist, glad-handing the covert ones that populate the Senate.
Duke recognized that George Bush's treacherous act was his victory and that the racist politics it celebrated was his issue. Duke had George Bush where he wanted him -- openly in his corner. And George Bush did not refute Duke.
The action of Bush and the Senate was a plunge into the terrible past not just because the president had to outright falsify the facts and call the failed legislation a "quota" bill to justify his veto. It was a terrible blow because the leadership of the nation chose to reinforce the worst in the American people at a time when reaching out to the best of us was demanded.
"These are dangerous times," said Elaine Jones, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. "The president of all the people has been using 'quotas' just like Willie Horton was used in the campaign . . . that's the tragedy. We need leadership on these issues. We need a healing, unifying leader, someone who will reach in and bring out the good, not who will run around using buzzwords."
Ironically, though it was called a civil rights bill, this legislation was really about economics. It sought to expand protection from job discrimination that was cut back by six recent Supreme Court decisions, especially those that made it harder for workers to defend themselves against unjust employers.
While the impact of those 1989 court decisions on women and racial minorities is that they are not getting promoted and not getting raises and won't be able to sue for damages in sexual harassment cases, white men are using the courts to challenge the hiring and promotion of blacks under court decrees that go as far back as 20 years.
"In the last 12 months," reported the New York Times, "white men have filed lawsuits contending that they were deprived of their rights as a result of affirmative action taken over the last two decades by local government in Birmingham, Ala.; Boston; Chicago; Cincinnati; Memphis; Oakland, Calif.; Omaha; San Francisco, among other cities."
But while the average person perceives this bill as one only to help blacks, it is much more than a racial issue. "One of the unspoken but primary reasons for the veto was the desire to prevent millions of working women, including white women, from getting damage awards in cases of intentional discrimination and harassment," said Kerry Scanlon, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Yet George Bush helped make it into a white-versus-black issue by erroneously calling it a quota bill, pandering to the same white fears as David Duke. Just as Bush played on racial fears with Willie Horton, he plays on racial fears in vetoing this bill. He always said his main objection was to racial quotas, not indicating at all that his veto would hurt women.
Bush said the legislation used "a maze of highly legalistic language to introduce the destructive force of quotas." But Thomas Homburger, of the Anti- Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, a group that has traditionally been against quotas, objected that the act "simply is not a quota bill." Civil rights advocates spent countless hours making certain legislators and White House operatives knew that the vetoed legislation was not a quota bill, even inserting language against such an interpretation.
By ignoring this, Bush played to racial divisiveness in the most cynical, dangerous way. The impact of this awful game is that David Duke, a man who once wore a pointed hood, feels empowered to come to Washington to observe the debate on the civil rights bill and, later, walk through the Senate cloakroom taking credit for the failed legislation.
Duke's presence in the Senate gallery is symbolic of the reason George Bush vetoed this bill. Duke is a reminder that white supremacy is not just alive and well, but becoming more emboldened as the country grows more ethnically and racially diverse.
But the saddest part is that if Duke is emboldened by Bush, Bush is, in turn, emboldened by Duke. So rather than take the leadership position and bridge the racial divide, Bush took advantage of the divisiveness to benefit himself politically.
And, once again, blacks were the scapegoat, the "scare tactic" of a false argument. Many black leaders were naive, even foolish, to trust George Bush, because the overwhelming evidence always was that he would do just what he did. But Bush blatantly used them for countless photo opportunities. Ultimately, they in turn betrayed the trust of their own followers by letting themselves be lulled to sleep by soporific rhetoric.
It's time they woke up and smelled something that isn't coffee in this racist America in which we live.