05/27/2010 04:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Rise (...or the Return) of the Rollback Movement

Don't pity Rand Paul, who pleads he's not the civil rights bogeyman that his own words have exposed him to be. Paul, the new prince of the Tea Party movement and the Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, got in hot water last week when he said private businesses shouldn't be forced to adhere to civil right rights laws.

Even though Paul quickly backpedaled from his bigoted remark, I just don't buy it. Based on Dr. Paul's previous writings on civil rights, his comment was not a benign slip of the tongue.

For me, Rand Paul epitomizes what I would call the "rise (or return) of the Rollback Movement": the Tea Party zealots who want to 'take back their government'; Arizona's far-right Legislature that passed a hateful immigration law that blatantly discriminates against people with brown skin; the Texas State Board of Education that now requires students to study Confederate President Jefferson Davis' inaugural address [to secede from the United the States of America!] and to study the "contributions of Confederate generals."

What binds these groups together is a passion and determination to rollback history and shift the burden of their economic and cultural insecurity onto people of color striving for a more tolerant, inclusive and equitable America.

This Rollback Movement recites the coded buzzwords spewed by conservative pied-pipers like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. All the while, mainstream media rush to turn xenophobic noisemakers like the Tea Party into political celebrities. As a result, new dimensions of the economic crisis go unreported or get marginalized.

For example, last Friday (May 21), the Washington Post gave Rand Paul's controversial remarks front-page coverage. Yet, the same day, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper totally ignored the release of a stunning new report that reveals the wealth gap between blacks and whites has more than quadrupled over the course of a generation from $20,000 to $95,000. But the study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University did catch the attention of James Parks on the AFL-CIO's blog. According to the study:

  • African American families have fewer economic resources to fall back on during this economic crisis than do white families, mainly due to discrimination and tax policies that favor the rich.
  • In fact, a typical white family is now five times richer than its African-American counterpart of the same class.
  • That means blacks had little or no money to start businesses, send children to college or ensure a secure retirement, the authors say.

Black households have also been dealt another wealth-building blow in the shrinking part of the workforce that is unionized:

  • In 2009, black union membership plummeted by more than 200,000, constituting 27 percent of the total union jobs lost and more than double the share of black workers in unions (13 percent.)

This disproportionate erosion of black union jobs means African-American workers -- already saddled with a steep wealth deficit -- will lose health care coverage for their families, pension income for their retirement and a nest egg to help their children achieve some level of financial security.

That's why with the economy barely creeping back to life, it's imperative that workers of color have equal access to jobs that compensate them fully and fairly. Otherwise, the racial income and wealth gaps will only deepen and multiple over generations.

Congress can help shape the inclusive economy we must build to ensure shared prosperity across lines of class, color and gender. A crucial step in that direction would be passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would empower workers to join unions and demand fair pay without intimidation or retaliation.

I'm hopeful President Obama will champion this vital bill as he fine-tunes his strategy to tackle the jobs crisis. Then let the Rollback Movement confront an energized and multi-hued progressive movement.