The Jim Crow impulse

Filed under OPINION

00_LeeDanielsArizona’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.

Sounds eerily familiar
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.

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.

Cut from the same cloth
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.

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?

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

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.

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