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The Jim Crow Impulse
3/6/2014 12:20:34 PM

By Lee A. Daniels

Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, after nearly a week of reading the political tea leaves, vetoed a bill Feb. 27 from her state’s GOP-controlled legislature that its advocates stated had the innocuous purpose of shoring up protections for the “free exercise of religion.”

In fact, the legislation would have revived for use against gays and lesbians one of the oldest planks of the centuries-long state-sponsored bigotry against Black Americans: religion. Or, perhaps, it’s more correct to characterize it as religious mumbo-jumbo.

The bill, SB1062, would have amended Arizona’s constitution, to allow any individual, business owner, association, corporation, partnership or church to discriminate against gays and lesbians if they claimed they were following a “sincerely held” religious belief.

In fact, current state law does not provide protection for gays and lesbians against discrimination; so, the bill would have increased the legal advantages of those operating an enterprise in the public sphere who wanted to discriminate.

The bill also could also protect those who would discriminate against Muslims because they are offended by Muslim religious beliefs. It would have overridden specific city ordinances of Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff protecting the rights of gay and lesbian individuals. And it would have undermined policies of private businesses that were inclusive of gays and lesbians.

Do those provisions of law sound familiar?

You don’t have to go too deep into the American past to find their rancid antecedents. Southern segregationists of the 19th and 20th centuries pioneered the use of religious mumbo-jumbo to try to sanctify the rank prejudice in the thousands and thousands of discriminatory laws southern state legislatures, city councils and other rule-making bodies enacted to deny Black Americans full citizenship.

Despite its advocates’ mealy-mouthed claims that the bill was to protect the “religious freedom” of “Christians,” the Arizona bill’s intent was so obvious that progressive forces throughout the country immediately mounted a campaign against it.

Implicit in their words of condemnation was the threat of an economic boycott against the state like the one rapidly organized in in the spring of 2010 after Brewer singed a draconian immigration law that was widely, and rightly, interpreted as anti-Hispanic. That boycott cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Clearly, avoiding a repeat of that economic and public-relations disaster played a role in the demand of the state’s business community, both of its Republican U.S. Senators, and other GOP politicians that Brewer exercise her veto power. Adding more muscle to that imperative was word from the National Football League, whose 2015 Super Bowl is scheduled for Phoenix, that it was “monitoring” the situation there.

So, the forces of progress prevailed in this instance. The Brewer veto is another clear signal, along with public opinion surveys, federal court decisions striking down state bans against same-sex marriages, and the refusal of six state attorneys general to enforce such homophobic laws, that substantial progress is being made in expanding a true definition of freedom for all Americans.

But before progressives celebrate too much, they’d do well to note that similar “religious freedom to discriminate” bills – all sponsored by Republicans – exist in the legislatures of nearly a dozen states. Progressives would do well to note that these proposals are cut from the same cloth as the voluminous GOP-sponsored bills intended to suppress the vote of Democratic Party-leaning Americans, especially Blacks, and restricting the reproductive rights of women. What all these have in common is the essential scam of the old Jim Crow laws: the zero-sum claim that their “freedom” is dependent on their denying freedom to those they don’t like.

That fact underscores one of the key political questions of the day: Is the Republican Party – not just in Arizona but everywhere – suffering from a kind of collective memory loss? Have they forgotten the evil the Jim Crow impulse created in an era not all that long ago?

Or, are its members trapped in that favorite scenario of science fiction – the time-loop – that compels them to keep trying their once-successful “wedge politics” stratagem? Don’t they yet realize that that gambit has come home to roost as a virus within the party itself, making it congenitally unable to shed the old Jim Crow “values” of excluding all those who don’t look or act as they do?

Finding the antidote to eliminate that poison from their system is the “freedom movement” the GOP needs to be focusing on.

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