The negation of the Civil Rights Act is a nasty reminder of our nation's history of racism and class struggle.Which is the greater shame? That President Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, or that rights are still being parceled out to workers, women and minorities as if they don't really deserve them?
The disfranchised of this society know that this is not a kinder, gentler nation. Disappointed and disheartened by the racist/conservative trend in the country, American workers, women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, the handicapped and the elderly were not surprised by the president's action last week.
We understand that a conservative leader, who used the record of a criminal such as Willie Horton to get elected to the White House, would be capable of vetoing a major piece of legislation geared to protecting American citizens in the workplace.
Bush used his veto to energize and reassure those who felt he was getting soft on conservative issues.
The White House aide who said, "Quotas and affirmative action are not something the American people want or support. If the Democrats want to fight us on affirmative action or quotas, I'll take them on any time," has a point.
He's one of the shrewd politicians Bush keeps around him. They understand the conservative climate is growing, and they're laying the groundwork for another term.
"Quota" is a firebrand word to
day. Racists and conservatives have used it effectively to suggest preferential treatment for African-Americans. The fact that for decades, business and government used quotas to keep African-Americans from getting jobs and promotions seems to be of no importance.
Nor does it seem to matter that African-American children are still bearing the bitter fruits of those years that their parents were excluded from the workplace.
Years ago, says the noted historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, the quota for African-Americans at the University of Oklahoma was zero. That's when he was trying to enroll in graduate school.
A professor of legal history at Duke University Law School, Franklin says it's interesting how, in a country where quotas have regularly been used to exclude specific ethnic groups, quota is now a dirty word.
"It was used once to limit the number of people from certain jobs, from getting employment and to enter universities," Franklin says. "That was in a time when quotas for blacks were zero. Blacks can't be afraid of quotas because they've never had one."
Franklin says that there is nothing in the language of the 1990 Civil Rights Act that suggested quotas; members of Congress, civil rights proponents and several major newspapers concur.
But, Franklin says, he was not surprised by Bush's veto. "President Bush has done a lot of things in the way of cosmetics, but he has not done anything fundamental in this whole area of civil rights.
"The very people who expected so much of Bush are now understanding that. It was simply because of the contrast with President Reagan. Bush did things that Reagan did not, such as invite black people to the White House or make some few appointments. But that does not do anything for the masses of the people.
"In 1989, Bush did not have time to study and comment on the decisions passed by the Supreme Court that made it difficult for women and minorities in the workplace," Franklin says. "But as soon as the Supreme Court handed down the right to desecrate the flag, he jumped on his soapbox."
Many people realize that Bush's veto was not an idealistic reaction to what he perceived as a problem with quotas. Instead, it was a racist/conservative appeal to certain elements of the American public that got George Bush elected in the first place.
But concerned citizens, who deplore the way specific groups are treated, keep forgetting that we're dealing with politicians and business leaders who know what they're doing. The United States is just 10 years away from the time when the majority of workers are expected to be people of color. That fact is not lost on either of these groups, and they're getting ready.
Once again, the powerful are obstructing the path of the powerless. Hiding beneath the blanket with his twin brother racism is classism. Since the founding of this country, we have favored the "landed gentry."
As divisive as Bush's message was _ this bill would force businesses to adopt hiring and promotion quotas to avoid lawsuits _ there is a second, menacing message nesting inside that would never be used openly: We're keeping "those people" in their places. "Those people" are their image of black people and other minorities.
But for thinking men and women, this veto represents something much more dangerous.
The Civil Rights Act of 1990 would have been a bridge to right the wrongs for everyone _ white, black, male, female, handicapped _ caught in the vicious cycle of big business, which doesn't want requirements that it be fair in hiring, promotion and treatment of workers.
In our present conservative climate, replete with hate crimes, sexual harassment and callous disregard for human rights, this act would have been a safe harbor for many a violated soul, just as the Civil Rights bills of the past have been.
Though written to aid African-Americans in their fight for first-class citizenship, Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s also helped women and other minorities. The laws became spring boards, safety nets, for average Americans who had no one to plead for them.
But then, it has always been the burden of the disenfranchised to put flesh on the Constitution and meaning into laws.
Jesse Jackson says the veto was "a call to a return to massive direct action," including non-violent protest.
I agree. If the disenfranchised don't agitate for their welfare, who will?
Workers, women, African-Americans need to let their president and congressional representatives know how they feel about this veto. This is a good time to form better coalitions.
Talk of an economic recession is dominating conversation, even at tea parties. If there ever was a time we need each other, it's now.
"Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people," said black activist Marcus Garvey. "Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom."