Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry, in an interview with a local African-American newspaper last October, boasted about his appointments and nominations of African-Americans to top spots on major state commissions, state boards, college and university boards, and to the courts. His signature appointment was Wallace Jefferson as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Perry made the point in nominating Jefferson that merit not color was his watchword when it comes to race. He told the interviewer that "the color of your skin or the sound of your last name, that if you are willing to work hard and play by the rules you can become anything you want in this state."
Perry's appointments of African-Americans are significant and in some ways ground-breaking, and they can and should be applauded. But Perry's appointments of prominent blacks also follows the template that conservative GOP presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and George W. Bush established. Bush's appointments of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Rod Paige (as Secretary of Education) were hailed as ultimate proof that GOP conservatives really do believe in merit, not color.
This is hardly the case. The record of GOP leaders and officials on diversity has been abominable and their relentless war against affirmative action programs and initiatives and their slash and burn of education, health and social service programs, have resulted in soaring poverty and joblessness rates among blacks and Latinos. Perry's much touted Texas Miracle in job creation is a near textbook example of touting economic progress while at the same time continuing the assault on the support programs for the poor and minorities in the state. Perry refused to raise the income standard to allow more needy families to be eligible for the joint federal and state health care program. took the caps off of tuition at the state's major universities and colleges, and under the guise of radical cost cutting measures to reduce the state's budget deficit hacked away funding and programs for health, prenatal care, and various income support programs. Those hurt as always were minorities and the poor.
There is no record that Perry's African-American appointees publicly protested these retrograde measures. It was the same with the African-American appointees of the Bushes, Reagan, and Nixon. They were virtually mute as their presidential bosses warred against civil rights organizations, and affirmative action programs and expanding civil rights protections, and systematically gutted education and health, employment training programs. The arguable exception was Powell, who did speak out in support of affirmative action. But Powell more than cancelled out his stand defending affirmative action by dutifully conning Congress and the UN to bag support for Bush's launch of the costly, wasteful, and needless Iraq war. Then there is Clarence Thomas, first as Reagan's appointee to head the EEOC and later Bush's Sr.'s appointee to the Supreme Court. Thomas typifies the damage that some GOP black appointees to high profile positions wreak on civil rights, civil liberties, subverting labor protections, and in upholding the worst corporate abuses.
But hard-nosed conservatives such as Perry couldn't manufacture their color-blind line to denigrate Democrats and civil rights organizations out of thin air. Blacks are and have been the backbone of the Democratic Party for the last half century and the GOP during most of these years been anathema to black voters. But Bush in his 2004 presidential re-election bid adroitly exploited the powerful symbolism of his Powell and Rice appointments and the overwhelming opposition of black evangelicals to gay marriage and rights, and abortion. This enabled him to get just enough black vote support in a handful of key states to insure his victory. The social conservatism of many blacks that Perry and other GOP officials tap into enable the GOP to attract a ready pool of blacks to appoint or nominate to visible judicial or administrative positions. This gives them the wedge to continue to crow that they champion color-blind policies.
Perry scored rhetorical points by playing up the racial significance of his nomination of Jefferson to the top spot on the Texas High Court appointment, while at the same time appearing to downplay it when he claimed that he didn't give a thought to Jefferson's color in nominating him. As he put it "it was important to have a mix -- a mosaic" of people that represent "different cultures" on the court as well as the state's other boards and agencies. This wasn't a homage to affirmative action since Perry staunchly opposes standard affirmative action programs. But it looks and sounds good and gives the appearance that color doesn't matter to conservatives such as Perry when it really does.
Perry will play hard on the Madison Avenue sounding "Texas Miracle" on job creation on the campaign trail. But he'll also play hard on his color-blind diversity record in appointing African-Americans. Both claims are terribly suspect.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com.
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