For the second time this year (the first being on Social Security reform), the Republicans are cynically appealing to African Americans to gain support for their conservative agenda. This time its over judicial nominees, currently being blocked by Democratic filibusters in the Senate. Because one of the judges in question is an African American woman (Janice Rogers Brown), Senator Frist met with black clergy members to racialize the Democrats opposition. At the show and tell event made for the media, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., asked Democrats, "Why are they afraid to put a black woman on the court? Because a black woman, everybody knows, is not going to be ruled by the Democrat or Republican party." Jackson isn't entirely wrong in his logic--Brown's opinions are not the run of the mill Republican conservativism, especially on race issues such as racial profiling.
Regardless of the potential legitimacy of Jackson's statement, it seems hard to believe that Democrats are opposing Brown because she is a black woman. And coming from a Republican Party that has used identity politics before--Ronald Reagan's speech to white Mississippians supporting local rule, Jesse Helms anti-affirmative action ads with a white man crumpling up a rejection letter, George Bush's Willy Horton ad, and we can go on and on--this is clearly crass politics only legitimate within the new rules for crassness that the Republicans have established.
The manipulation of identity politics and descriptive representation certainly creates challenges for the Left. Most of us support diversifying politics and the workplace, and many of us (myself included) support the idea that descriptive representation has true merits. But the Republicans are quickly undermining the foundation of this position. People of Color and women have long known that there are opportunities for personal advancement if you promote conservative policies. But the Republican agenda--knowing that Democrats are less willing to attack conservative appointments who are Latino, black, or Asian American--is creating an absurd world of conservative minorities in high positions, opposing many of the principles that made it possible for them to get there. The Republicans aren't the only ones doing this, obviously. Walmart--as our fellow blogger Dorian Warren has well pointed out--is equally pernicious in using race to divide the left, weaken unions, and allow them more stores and profits. And as Dorian points out, a big reason for this is because the Left has not had a real conversation about race that has allowed them to move to a point where they can respond to clearly strategic race baiting by the Right.
(see Dorian's quotes about Walmart in: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050328&s=featherstone)
So what do we do? Short term, defeat these candidates. Long-term, start an honest discussion that doesn't begin with simple assumptions that race is meaninglessly, that identity politics is undesireable/artificial, or that racism doesn't exist on the Left. Until we do that, we will continue to have to watch on the sidelines as the conservatives manipulate our agenda for their own self-serving purposes.