Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nullification: Last Refuge of White Supremacists

District 78 Representative Kirk Talbot looks like the mild-mannered junior legislator, but in the wake of passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Talbot has transformed into a champion of the cause of "nullification" in the Legislature — a discredited legal theory that states can somehow override federal laws that they disagree with.

While his leadership on this issue has won him admirers on the right, it has also fixed Talbot squarely in a long line of southerners who defended slavery, championed white supremacy and fought long and hard to defeat the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago. In embracing the legal theories first advanced by South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, Kirk Talbot is also embracing the long sordid history of white supremacists in this state that includes the murderous vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan and the barely more subtle racist politics of Plaquemines Parish boss Leander Perez, Sr.

Talbot's bill and constitutional amendment to nullify healthcare reform have exposed a side of Republican politics that the party has previously tried to conceal. But, with a Republican governor, the Secretary of Health and Hospitals, Commissioner of Insurance, and the Democratic Attorney General falling all over themselves to support his efforts either directly or through their own channels, the conservative political leadership of the state feels it will pay no price for embracing this tainted legal legacy. While nullification and the racial domination implicit in it have long simmered below the surface of state politics (at least in politic company), it had not seen the light of day since Perez and State Senator Willie Rainach championed Louisiana resistance to desegregation through the formation of White Citizens Councils and other less 'respectable' means in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Until Kirk Talbot brought it out of the shadows this year.

The Politics of Fear and Loathing

Talbot's embrace of nullification has tapped into the fear and disorientation that has gripped segments of the white community since Barack Obama rose to the Democratic nomination for President and then won the election. Upon his inauguration and his decision to tackle health reform, segments of the white community simply became unhinged. There is, in fact, a name for the phenomena: "Obama Derangement Syndrome."

From "birthers" who question whether the President was born in the United States to those who call him alternately a muslim, a radical christian, a marxist and a nazi, clearly large segments of the white community (particularly Republicans and members of the Tea Party) are having a difficult time coming to terms with the very idea of Barack Obama as President. The phenomena is even disturbing to some on the right.

Healthcare reform sent many of these people even further over the edge. The evidence being that anything negative they heard about the President, they believed. Think about the "death panels" nonsense that raged late last summer.

Nullification is an idea that percolated on the fringes of the right as it became clear that the President and Congressional Democrats were going to succeed in passing healthcare reform.

The alleged trigger for this rabid response to reform is federal mandate that individuals buy health insurance which is included in the new law. Ironically, the idea originated with Republicans when Bill Clinton was trying to get his version of healthcare reform passed in the 1990s.

Now, however, in the hands of this Black Democratic President, this Republican-invented mandate somehow constitutes an existential threat to the Republic that must be quashed. Never mind that the state of Massachusetts actually pioneered this approach under the legislation it passed under the administration of Mitt Romney.

The Ride Ain't Free

Nullification carries considerable baggage. It is the legal theory that — at least in part — the Civil War was fought over. It is the legal theory that was behind efforts in the South to defend slavery, then segregation, and other race-based legal schemes championed by long lines of white supremacists who dominated the region's business and political realms between in the 19th and 20th centuries. That control lasted from end of Reconstruction until the late 1960s when the last vestiges of legal segregation were struck down in the courts and by the Congress.

In Louisiana, nullification is the theory that was at the core of the legal and political strategies of Perez and Rainach as they fought desperately to stop African Americans from attaining full citizenship, including the right to vote, equal access to education, and to public accommodations.

But, that was a long time ago — well before this freshman lawmaker, who was educated at Ole Miss, was born. Talbot was a business major. He should have spent a bit more time studying history before he picked up this particular cudgel. It is a tainted tool that has a well-documented history of contaminating those who use it.

Land of Opportunism

Only 14% of white Louisiana voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Like Al Gore and John Kerry, Obama did not campaign here after the party's nominating convention and he did not spend significant money here.

Despite those limitations, he got 40% of the total vote.

Republicans, who built their party in the South using campaigns of racial resentment, have abandoned all pretense of subtlety in their opposition to President Obama and his policies. There has been an open effort to undermine the legitimacy of his election and defeat his presidency from the start. It is not so surprising that this effort would be led by people like South Carolina Senator "You Lie" Jim DeMint, the home state of John Calhoun, Strom Thurmond and others.

What is, perhaps, surprising is how unquestioningly some Louisiana Republicans (particularly Bobby Jindal) have embraced this attempt to undermine the Obama presidency with so little regard for the racial element implicit in the effort. Are they tone deaf or just indifferent?

Does it matter?

Where Kirk Talbot Comes From

That Kirk Talbot feels he can pursue this strategy at no political costs is readily understandable when you look at his district. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State's office, 88% of the voters in Talbot's district (which is comprised of a fairly narrow piece of land running from West Esplanade Avenue on the east bank of Jefferson Parish down to Harahan on the Mississippi River) are white.

Only 5.4% of the voters in Talbot's district are African Americans. Another 6.4% are listed as "other" and are probably predominantly Hispanic.

Kirk Talbot and his racial politics are products of the kind of racial gerrymandering approach to reapportionment being championed for the Senate by the Louisiana Family Forum and their front man Senator Elbert Lee Guillory of Opelousas.

Under this kind of approach, African Americans are enticed by the lure of a number of minority majority districts (that is, districts where African American voters constitute a majority of voters). The trade off is that the rest of the districts become whiter — like District 78 — and people like Kirk Talbot get elected.

And, while the Times-Picayune says votes on Talbot's bill and constitutional amendment to make nullification the law of the state puts white Democrats in a tight spot, the fact is that it is also a perilous course for Republicans because of the way it strips away the veneer of refinement of their appeal that has made them a political force here and across the South. The subtle appeals to racial resentment was accepted in polite company. More blatant appeals to the worser angels of our beings carries real risks that Republicans and Tea Party members (is there really a difference worth noting?) run.

This is not a radical state and it is not a radical country. Sending Louisiana lurching back to an era of racial divisiveness that most would rather forget is not a recipe for long-term political success in Louisiana.

Still, white Democrats in the Legislature will be tested on the votes on Talbot's bills. They will be tempted by Talbot and others to make a stand for "states rights" in the face of what is deemed unprecedented federal encroachment. Good ole politics among the good ole boys can be an attractive bandwagon to jump on at times in Baton Rouge.

Still, the fact of the matter is that nearly 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, whatever benefit white Democratic elected officials can derive by switching parties now have been played out. Democrats in the House and Senate carry that party label because it means something to them.

As Kirk Talbot, his fellow Republicans and the Tea Partiers demonstrate every day, the Democratic Party is the only political party in this country that is committed to embracing a multi-racial constituency. Our party and its members have not always lived up to our billing, but we hold these truths to be self-evident: that the content of a person's character is more important that the color of his or her skin; that no race is better than another race; and that our society cannot afford the luxury of racial prejudice and divisiveness if we are going to reach our potential as a our communities, our state and our nation.

Kirk Talbot does not believe in that message. Otherwise, he would not be so fervently champion a legal theory so deeply rooted in the history of white supremacy and the defense of racial oppression in this country and state.

Is there no one in the Republican leadership of this state willing to stand up and speak out against Talbot and his message? Or, has Obama Derangement Syndrome infected them all?

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