Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sucks to be You! North Carolina Republicans Vote Down Compensation for Victims of Forced Sterilization

Once more, our political culture has proven itself to be sick. In a healthy democracy the social compact is respected. Political ideology is trumped by the common good. Divides of party are superseded by decency and common sense. With little fanfare, last week the Republican Party in North Carolina demonstrated that such basic understandings about government (and the golden rule in society at large) are to be disregarded.

For many decades, from at least 1929 to 1974, North Carolina public health officials enforced a Nazi-like eugenics policy which dictated that thousands of "undesirables"--poor men and women, racial minorities, the mentally retarded, and the developmentally impaired--would be sterilized, often without their consent.

North Carolina apologized for its eugenics policy in 2002. While no amount of money can make a person whole after suffering such a horrible violation, in 2011 it was suggested by the state's Eugenics Compensation Task Force that the living victims of these programs should be given the quite modest sum of 50,000 dollars. Last Thursday, along a party-line vote, Republicans in the North Carolina Senate rejected even this most basic of gestures towards compensatory justice.

Their decision is one more example of white conservative populism run amok, where it works to promote a particular and narrow ideology (usually mobilizing the cold and distracting language of "budgetary concerns and priorities") over the common good and human decency. Moreover, even working from within a framework of "principled" conservatism--one that is pragmatic and utilitarian--I would suggest that there is little if any philosophical basis for such a cold and cruel decision.

The Right obsessively shrieks about "tyranny" and "big government." However, the Republicans in North Carolina's Senate do not consider forced sterilization by the state a great crime against personal freedom and liberty. 

Conservatives constantly crow and complain about fiscal responsibility and excess government spending. If they followed a simple economic calculus, these same Republicans would realize that a payout of 50,000 dollars is small, and thus preferable, when compared to the millions of dollars the plaintiffs will likely be awarded in a class action lawsuit. 

Rule of law and the social contract were also disregarded in this case. Ideally, the law is a means to arbitrate disputes in the interest of finding a mutually agreeable solution that should balance both the private and public good. This is especially true when the parties to a crime are still alive: these justice claims are not being made against an entity or agents centuries-past and long ago dead. As such, the compensation could do something for the victims in the present. It would be immediate and material as opposed to a hollow apology given to folks who are long since dead and gone. Applying a different model of governance and decency, the Republican members of North Carolina's Senate decided to spit in the face of healing and community.

Assuming they are not irrational monsters, why would these Republicans choose to deny the victims of the state's eugenics policies any compensation for their pain, suffering, and violation of human liberty?

The victims of these policies were the Other. The black female bodies which became the symbols of this crime and violation are already marginalized. The black female voices who gave testimony about North Carolina's crimes against humanity are to be muted in the conservative political imagination. Both as women, and as people of color, these types of bodies are to be regulated and disciplined by the state, and in particular by white men. This is the core sentiment driving the Right's simultaneously prurient interest in women's sex organs, fear of female sexual agency, and a perverse desire to control women's reproductive choices.

These feelings resonate doubly when the body is black and female for she then becomes the ideal-typical "welfare queen" who has motivated conservative policy initiatives since at least the 1980s. On a very basic level, the political imagination which the Republican Party in North Carolina draws upon for logic and inspiration wants to see black and brown female bodies regulated by the state. Forced sterilization is just a less subtle aspect of a broader desire.

There is a second motivation here as well. While its advocates deploy "race neutral" rhetoric about small government, as well as individual freedom and liberty, in the United States contemporary conservatism is also very much motivated by white racial resentment, white victimology, and hostility to people of color. Together, these attitudes form a bundle of beliefs that cannot be easily separated from one another. This is especially true for the petit authoritarians who comprise the Tea Party New Right.

Because conservatives mine white racial resentment for political capital, the real issue in this dispute about forced sterilization is the ugly "R" word, the evil beast known as "reparations" for slavery. 
“You just can’t rewrite history. It was a sorry time in this country,” state Sen. Don East (R) told the Associated Press. “I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it, don’t make it go away. It still happened”...“If you could lay the issue to rest, it might be one thing. But I’m not so sure it would lay the issue at rest because if you start compensating people who have been ‘victimized’ by past history, I don’t know where that would end,” Sen. Austin Allran (R) told the AP.
[An observation. By this logic, the past should be let go and left unaltered--except when the Tea Party GOP wants to rewrite history and science textbooks in order to serve a Christian Nationalist agenda in the present.]

Social scientists have conducted focus groups and experiments which have demonstrated that white participants consistently support reparations for past social injustices such as slavery when it is an abstract idea. Yet, when the example is contextualized, and applied to the United States, the same white folks reverse their opinions. The Republicans in North Carolina have channeled this energy, but with far less hypocrisy and contradiction.

Their ugliness is naked and transparent.

In essence, they turned to the poor, the disabled, the marginalized, and in particular at black and brown women, and said "it sucks to be you!"

This gross selfishness, betrayal of the social compact, and hostility to "surplus" people who are not "productive" in the Ayn Randian whiteopia dream of the Tea Party GOP is one more data point in the bizarre play that is post civil rights, Age of Obama America. Ultimately, an ethic of care and concern, and a respect for justice, are trumped by political ideology and the Right's efforts to construct a historically myopic and blameless whiteness.

And they wonder why many folks say that in America today conservatism and racism are one and the same.


Anonymous said...

My poor state -- an issue I have followed extremely closely. CDV, email me if you would care to discuss this in greater detail. I have more information, although nothing that would qualify as "insider" stuff.

chaunceydevega said...

@Daniel. Do share, me wants to know.

ellemarie said...

Do conservatives believe in the social contract? My understanding is that the notion of the social contract is foundational to classical liberalism, and the "Progressive" movement, particularly in its earliest late-19th/early 20th century form. Admittedly, my knowledge of the philosophy behind of the American conservative movement is limited to a book or two in an American History survey class, but I don't think the idea of the social contract really applies here. I think conservatives reject it wholesale, and if they do, well then it makes perfect sense that they reject the idea that a government should address and try to remedy wrongs it has committed against its citizens.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Do conservatives believe in the social contract?

No, they don't. The rich ones don't want to pay for it, and the rest of them have been fooled into thinking that they don't and won't benefit from it, and that it only inures to the benefit of those other people over there.

Razor said...

The only social contract that racist white America has had with people of color that was respected was the one we had during slavery and post slavery, which is "we have no social contract with people of color that they are bound to respect". The majority of white Americans are really scared to death. As has been discussed on this site many times before, every gain that people of color and women have made has been seen and felt by white men to be a deficit to their newfound stature in America. 95% of them are direct descendants of people who were for several generations born poor and died poor. No more than the freed slave sharecroppers living under Jim Crow. That's why you will rarely ever hear them trace their family tree too far back. They are proud to be white,or in a lot of cases, honorary whites, but not proud beyond two or three generations.

The few white people who understand that we are now living in a near-fascist state and realize that their worth to the plutocratic elite in this country is steadily shrinking are scared to death and would rather put their heads in the sand.

Meanwhile, they still enjoy the white privilege that they have in that, unlike black folk they don't have to fear the police, unless they choose to protest the financial beating that many of them are taking from theiir feudal lords. It is far easier to hate on colored folk as being the root of their problems. Especially the average white person because there are so many above-average people of color who if given equal chances would have more than half of them starving and on food stamps. They desperately need discrimination to continue.

makheru bradley said...

A couple of points here: The Republican controlled (R-68; D-52) NC House voted for the compensation. The Republican speaker, Thom Tillis, called the measure “his chief legislative priority,” and called its defeat by the Republican controlled Senate (R-31; D-19) a “personal failure.”

The victims have already lost one lawsuit.

[One of the most outspoken victims, Elaine Riddick of Atlanta, has said she was raped and then sterilized after giving birth to a son when she was 14.

[Riddick said she planned legal action, but she has already been to court once. In 1983, a jury rejected victims' claims that they had been wrongfully deprived of their right to bear children. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.]

You are correct this is all about the inordinate fear of reparations for Afrikan people, although many of the victims of forced sterilization were poor whites. North Carolina is taking the same position as Oklahoma took on the Tulsa Race Riot: no reparations even when the victims are living.

Civil Rights organizations called for an economic boycott of South Carolina for flying the Confederate Flag over the state capitol. Forced sterilization is obviously a more serious issue. Would they dare call for an economic boycott of North Carolina with the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte in September? There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that will happen.

There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. I think both the North Carolina and Tulsa victims should do as Malcolm suggested: take their cases to the world court, provided they can find a sponsor.

CNu said...

provided they can find a sponsor.


Gwendoline Y. Fortune said...

No, conservaties-reeactionaries have a warped idea of the world. The history of humans--and other animals living together, cooperating in tribes-groups communities--is lost on those epople.

Somewhere they saw ancient cowboy type movies and bought that image as reality. These people are too dense even to notice that a posse is a group of people working together, even if they are on the barbarian side of the yard.

How we got so backwards looking is sad, understandable in the midst of fear of losing everything. Yet, they have no awareness of their part in bringing about the demise of decency.