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The problem with lecturing the Congressional Black Caucus on abortion

Registrar Carl Golson shakes a finger at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during meeting at the courthouse in Hayneyville, Alabama March 1, 1965. King inquired about voter registration procedures but Golson told him that if he was not a prospective voter in Lowndes county, “It’s none of your business.” (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Finger-pointing often sets people off. These days, it's become a valuable political skill.

Just last week, during speech that constituted one of Rep. Sean Duffy's (R-Wis.), first political acts of the year, Duffy stood on the House floor and said that the Congressional Black Caucus -- and the 50 members who make up its collective membership -- do not care about black lives.

According to Duffy, if they did, they would be talking a lot more about abortion. You can read the transcript, from the official Congressional Record. The most eyebrow raising section was this:

I have been in this institution for 5 years. Over the course of that 5 years, I have heard many of my liberal friends and a lot of friends from the Congressional Black Caucus talk about how there is targeting and unfair treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system. I have heard them. In Financial Services, I hear them talk about how big financial corporations target African Americans and minorities. As I turn on my TV, I listen to Black Lives Matter talk about how police and law enforcement are targeting African Americans and minority communities. I hear a lot in this institution from minority leaders about how their communities are targeted.
But what I don't hear them talk about is how their communities are targeted in abortion....There is a targeting going on in a lot of spaces and a lot of places, and it is going on in the abortion industry. And my liberal friends, Congressional Black Caucus Members, talk about fighting for the defenseless, the hopeless, and the downtrodden. There is no one more hopeless and voiceless than an unborn baby, but their silence is deafening. I can’t hear them. Where are they standing up for their communities, advocating and fighting for their right to life? Black lives matter. They do. Indian, Asian, Hispanic, and White, all those lives matter. We should fight for all life, including the life of the unborn.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have responded in a variety of ways that matter mostly in Washington. Members have spoken to reporters at publications read mostly by D.C. insiders describing Duffy's comments as racially insensitive, patronizing, insulting and perhaps worthy of a rare House resolution rebuking Duffy.

Duffy is a member of the majority party, and almost all of the Congressional Black Caucus's members are part of the minority. This means such a resolution would be highly unlikely to move forward if the CBC decides to try. So, ordinarily we would put this entire episode down to inside the Beltway business that won't have much effect on the American people.

But there is something about Duffy's comments -- both what he said and what he tried to do on the House floor -- that really is worth stopping for. What Duffy did was offer a little masterclass in the use of a valuable and often highly effective tool in the modern political warfare around race.

Sure, what Duffy said leans heavy and hard on a longstanding tradition of what some might call pro-life advocacy and others might describe as dangerously paternalistic and dismissive public rhetoric about abortion, race and inequality. But we think there's something else worth noting here.

Duffy just demonstrated a growing political phenomenon. While standing up and speaking on the House floor about abortion during a discussion about funding for Planned Parenthood, he also engaged in a kind of racial blame-laying and shaming. And it's that which is fast becoming the go-to way to avoid dealing with policy matters that have anything at all to do with various types of racial or ethnic inequality. It's a particularly handy tool if you want to deflect claims that something you have said, done or set in motion amounts to bigotry itself.

We aren't saying that Duffy's views on abortion are insincere or clearly bigoted. What we are saying is that the technique that Duffy deployed on the House floor last week is real, it is insidious and, most of the time, pretty insulting to people -- and fellow lawmakers -- with different views and experiences.

First, we have to deal with the factual basis on which the entirety of Duffy's comments hang.

It is true that black women undergo more abortions than any other group in the United States. That has been true for some time. The Fix explored this fact earlier this year when Ben Carson said on television that abortion represents the single biggest threat to black life in the country.

[Ben Carson’s focus on black abortions, Margaret Sanger and eugenics, explained]

We even pulled abortion and leading-cause-of-death data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from 2011, the most recent year for which all of this info was available. The chart below does have one limit worth noting: Only 26 states (and 27 reporting authorities) sent uniform abortion data by race and ethnicity to the CDC. So while all the other data in the chart reflects what happened to people living in all 50 states, the abortion data describes the number of abortions in 26 states.

But look closely at the pattern. Even with just 26 states reporting, the number of black and Latino women who underwent abortions far outpaces the number of people who died due to each respective group's leading cause of death. If you consider an abortion a death, then, it is true that abortions ended the lives of more black Americans in 2011 than the official leading cause of death, heart disease.

No matter where people stand politically on the issue of abortion, those numbers are alarming. If all 50 states provided the necessary information, the number of abortions would almost certainly be larger for each racial or ethnic group. And what we have right now does indicate that something serious is going on. One thing we know for sure is this: Most abortions follow an unintended pregnancy, according to the CDC. (For more on that, click here and read the section labeled Public Health Implications)

Women -- of all races -- in the United States, experience an unusually large number of unintended pregnancies each year when compared to other countries with advanced economies and health-care systems. And, while unintended pregnancy and abortion have declined significantly in recent years (mostly due to historic drops in the teen pregnancy rate across all groups and increased use of more reliable forms of contraception), the United States continues to stand in rare and not-at-all-enviable territory.

[Abortions are way down. Republicans and Democrats should stop congratulating themselves]

The CDC and the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights think tank and research organization, have identified poverty, health insurance coverage rates as well as inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent contraception access and use as the three primary causes of the country's still-elevated unintended pregnancy rate. And those same issues have been identified by both entities as the primary drivers of elevated abortion rates among black and Latina women.

Because of this, critiques of Duffy and his ideas as narrowly focused on fetuses and dismissive of what happens to children who live in poor or unprepared families are, at the very least, rendered just a little more substantive.

Now for the complicated political tactics that this whole Duffy incident exemplifies:

Again, we don't want to challenge the sincerity or legitimacy of Duffy's views on abortion. He has a right to them and to speak for them on the House floor. But by the same measure, so do those who support safe and legal abortion and those who believe that urgent action is needed to address problems -- including troubling racial patterns -- in policing.

Duffy starts in the by-now-familiar realm of arguments offered by those opposed to abortion. Then he moves on to the also-time-worn work of telling the 50 black members of the Congressional Black Caucus (who incidentally have various views on abortion, even if most favor legal abortion) what they should think and what they should prioritize. This is a little thing called speaking in a patronizing and insulting way.

Then, Duffy all but ridicules CBC members' concerns about well-documented inequity at every step and stage of the criminal justice system, predatory and other discriminatory forms of lending, and unjust policing. Every one of those issues deeply affects black Americans over their entire life cycles. He all but wags his finger at the CBC about abortion. That's outright dismissal and then an an attempt to shame.

Bolstering Duffy's comments are also a whole host of long-standing stereotypes about black fecundity and sexual activity, criminality and self-discipline. Duffy never cited any of these things. But that's what makes stereotypes so useful in politics. All you have to do is allude to them and the fictional and offensive narrative enters the minds of those consuming the debate. Just consider those ads that featured Barack Obama with darker skin. It is not a coincidence that they happened to focus on crime.

[Obama’s skin looks a little different in these GOP campaign ads on crime. Here's why the ads' creators made sure of that.]

All of this is why the CBC basically described Duffy's comments as insidious, insulting and inappropriate. But we think they were, at the very least, something else. They are part of a disturbing trend in the way race is talked about and dealt with by so many public figures today. First you deny, then you distract or redirect. Then you tell people they should ignore documented truths and adopt only the point of view with which you agree. Finally, you claim that anything but that is an insult or threat to you or those your support.

Allow us to share one other example before we return, briefly, to Duffy.

During a sit-down with the Des Moines Register editorial board Wednesday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush was asked about the federal government's role in addressing the country's problems with race and policing. Bush said he supported federal involvement when there is "overt discrimination." But he also cited black-on-black crime.

Bush began: "The gun violence in our urban areas is clearly up in most big urban areas. Police violence in that is a tiny part but it is an important part to restore trust." He added:

"I worry that every time there is an incident … and the Justice Department kind of comes in with a quick, 'We're going to have to investigate,' it furthers the distrust that we need to build."
He continued. "If there is discrimination, overt discrimination — put aside a police officer shooting a black man, because most of the crimes are black-on-black in the communities — most, by far in the predominantly African-American communities, it's black-on-black crime — the police shooting of unarmed black males, which is what the conversation is about as I understand it, is very small."
"So, I'm not sure that that's necessary a civil rights issue," he said. "But if it is, yeah, of course the federal government, the Justice Department has a right and a responsibility to enforce the law. But I think it's gone beyond that."

(Click here to view the Des Moines Register's editorial Board meeting with Bush video. Scroll ahead to about 19:34 to watch this section.)

It's important to note here that crime is down in recent years, and gun violence overall has been pretty level. But talking about it frightens people and has justified all sorts of things in this country, including police misconduct.

And, yes. Bush all but said that people -- including we assume black parents who have lost their children to unclear and in some cases utterly unjust confrontations with police -- are complaining about the wrong thing. In making his argument, he said that police shooting unarmed black men should be put "aside." What those protesting the way that police sometimes do their work should be focused on is not shootings involving unarmed black men and boys by police, the frequency with which these events go utterly unpunished, or the fact that the police are legally empowered to protect, serve and kill so they must operate lawfully. These people should first make their outrage and pain about black-on-black crime much more plain for other Americans, Bush is saying.

That form of crime, like all others, has existed as long as humans have gathered in adjacent spaces. But, until black-on-black crime has been vanquished, there is comparatively little that should be said about police, Bush suggests. The existence of all manner of community organizations, grieving parents and researchers who lobby, work in their communities and try to prevent crime and violence, is apparently just not enough. Police shootings are an issue, Bush said, if the discrimination is "overt." The real issue is how police feel. We've gone too far toward the other side, he said.

See the pattern there? First, there's some blame-shifting and distraction from the issue at hand, then some pretty assertive and some might say arrogant or hard-hearted redirection to the issue that Bush thinks really should matter to others. Finally, there's a claim that police, not private citizens, are the real victims and the only ones with real reason to worry.

Bold. Very bold. And sadly, quite effective. Just look around the Internet and see how often the augments made by Duffy and Bush outlined above are repeated. Not one of these men is the first to give public voice to these ideas. And not one of them will be the last.

The effort to sell others on your political ideas is just fine. It is part of an auspicious American tradition. It is certainly central to the legislative and campaign processes. Duffy certainly has a role to play in that. Instead, he's begun demanding some sort of apology from the CBC or its members because of the CBC response to his comments.

The effort to tell other people, experiencing real and difficult things, what their priorities should be is often inadvisable. But pretending that those problems are not real or do not matter is not right at all.