Monday, November 28, 2005

William Rehnquist's Racist Record Revealed

Original Chimes Article Here

“I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position for which I have been excoriated by ‘liberal’ colleagues, but I think Plessy v Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed.”

For those unfamiliar with American legal history, Plessy v Ferguson was a landmark case in the Supreme Court in 1896 that gave consent to legalized segregation in the southern United States. The aforementioned quote is taken from a memo written by a young law clerk named William Rehnquist to Justice Robert Jackson in the mid-1950’s. The memo went on to read: “it’s about time the Supreme Court faced the fact that the white people of the South don’t like the colored people.” While they are overtly racist, these statements become even more shocking when one realizes that they were written by the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the keynote speaker at Calvin College’s 2001 commencement.

Some might say that Rehnquist’s comments simply show that his viewpoint was a product of its time – it wasn’t uncommon during the 1950’s to find white men in positions of power holding racist attitudes. Therefore, it would be undue and unfair to criticize a man based on things he said forty-five years ago; after all, his opinion on such matters might have changed entirely.

Others may say that Rehnquist’s beliefs are representative of a young man whose ignorance was a result of a lack of experience and education concerning matters of racial equality. Sadly, the past 50 years of Rehnquist’s professional career illustrate that his views may not have changed at all since the days of segregation.

During elections from 1958 to 1962, Rehnquist was the director for the Republican Party’s “Operation Eagle Eye” program in Arizona. Leading teams of lawyers to various polling stations in Arizona, members of Operation Eagle Eye (dubbed “ballot security”) attempted to use legal methods to dissuade black voters. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Rehnquist and his colleagues were often quite successful at using legal methods to rig ballots, thereby creating an undemocratic election.

The house in which Rehnquist lived during this time had a deed stating that the home could not be sold to any person not of the Caucasian race. Upon moving in 1974 Rehnquist bought a home in Vermont that contained a covenant prohibiting the sale of the property to “any member of the Hebrew race.”

In 1980, Rehnquist made his thoughts on the case of United States v Sioux Nations known to the press: “We conquered them, why should we pay for their land?”  [Editor's note:  This quote is incorrect.  See below for an explanation.]

Since becoming Chief Justice in 1986, Rehnquist has hired 82 aides, 81 of which were white. Not a single one of his aides over the past 15 years has been African-American, and when asked why this is the case, he answered: “wait for the demographics to change. There is no need for a wider net the system is working just fine.” [Editor's note:  This quote is possibly incorrect.  See below for an explanation.]

Perhaps the most recent incident that shows Rehnquist’s racial prejudice occurred in 1999 at the Fourth Circuit judicial conference. Rehnquist joined others at the conference in a rousing sing-along to “Dixie,” the national anthem from the defunct Confederate States of America. Today this musical relic from the Civil War has come to represent the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow laws to many people, not just minorities.

As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Rehnquist is called to be fair and impartial to all Americans. By singing “Dixie,” he displayed a partiality and insensitivity that is not becoming of a man who supposedly has the best interests of everyone in mind.

The issue of Rehnquist’s myopic racial convictions bears a special significance at Calvin because he has been selected to give the commencement address this year.

For a school that prides itself on multicultural acceptance and promotion, it seems odd that a man with such a sordidly racist past would be chosen to speak here. I won’t assume any motives for his selection, aside from the fact that he is a prominent figure in a respected public office. Perhaps the person(s) who selected him merely overlooked his offensive racial record. My purpose for writing this article is not to attack those at Calvin who selected Rehnquist. Rather, it is to make the Calvin community aware of his true colors (an appropriate cliché).

While I’m sure that Rehnquist’s commencement speech will not contain any of the hateful rhetoric of his past utterances, it remains a perfect opportunity for us as members of the Calvin community to let our views become known. Pass the word around, hold up a sign, or walk out of the auditorium in protest immediately before his speech. Whatever you do, make it known that the Calvin community does not tolerate those who are intolerant.


Editor's Notes:
 I didn't actually write this article.  My good friend Bork wrote it. But the original idea was mine, and all of the research was mine, so I'm posting it here.  (For a full account of the story behind this article, see here.)
The article contains an error, which was my fault and not Bork's.  The error is the following quote:

 In 1980, Rehnquist made his thoughts on the case of United States v Sioux Nations known to the press: “We conquered them, why should we pay for their land?”

I found the quote doing research on the Internet.  The quote comes from this University of Arizona student newspaper, Arizona Daily Wildcat, February 2, 1995 (LINK HERE) which reads:

Colored balloons filled with helium and slips of paper that read, "Rehnquist re: Native Americans: We conquered them, why should we pay for their land? United States v. Sioux Nation (1980)," greeted Chief Justice William Rehnquist as he began his first day of teaching at the UA Law School.
I interpreted this as meaning that this was a direct quote from William Rehnquist.  But it appears that it was nothing of the sort.  (Or at the very least, I can't find this verified anywhere.)

The newspaper was apparently quoting what the protesters at Arizona put on the balloons, not what Rehnquist actually said.   Presumably this was the protesters' summary of Rehnquist's attitude in the case of United States v. Sioux Nation (1980),

It was somewhat unfortunate that the Arizona Daily Wildcat put this in quotation marks as if it had been a direct quote. But the fault for not double checking this before going to print is all on me.
Bork was totally blameless in all of this.  I put the quote in a separate document summarizing all my research, and just assured him it was all genuine documented stuff.  His only fault was trusting me.

There's another potential problem with this piece, which Josh picked up in his rebuttal, which came the week after.  (LINK HERE).

Third, 81 of Rehnquist’s 82 law clerks have been white; Rehnquist hasn’t hired a single black clerk. Bork’s article cites as evidence of Rehnquist’s continued racist tendencies a recent explanation for this disparity. The problem, however, is that Rehnquist said no such thing. Bork’s source fabricated the quotation and misconstrued the tone of a letter the Chief Justice wrote for all nine justices. If Rehnquist wrote for the entire court, are they all racist?

I no longer even remember what the source for this quote was, so I can't defend it.
We were not in the habit of citing our sources within the texts of our articles at Chimes--although arguably we should have been.  But at any rate, we weren't, so the original source is not cited in the text, and is gone from my memory.
Josh knew what the original source was, because I handed over all my notes and sources to him when he said he wanted to write a rebuttal.  (It was a nice friendly atmosphere over at the Chimes office,  and we liberals and conservatives cooperated together.) And so he had access to the source, and apparently was of the opinion that the source "fabricated the quotation and misconstrued the tone of a letter ".
As I can no longer remember the original source, I'll have to just concede this point.

Speaking of Josh's rebuttal, in the interest of keeping this fair and balanced, I'll reprint his rebuttal in full below.  

Continuing discussion on Rehnquist
'Racist' evidence inconclusive
(Original Chimes Article Here)

Bork argued last week that our Chief Justice – Calvin’s Commencement 2001 speaker – has exhibited racist tendencies (“William Rehnquist’s racist record revealed,” April 27). I disagree and wish to discuss his main pieces of evidence.

Bork opened with Rehnquist’s comment from 1954 on the Supreme Court’s momentous Brown v. Bd. of Ed. decision that the “separate but equal” doctrine from Plessy v. Ferguson should be upheld. He does not suggest any motivation for Rehnquist’s position other than racism, but a closer look is warranted. The majority opinion in Plessy (1896) rejected the argument that “social prejudices may be overcome by legislation and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by a forced commingling of the two races.” However, in 1954 the Court held that “separate but equal” is “inherently unequal” and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

My own view is that Plessy was wrong and Brown right. Although I disagree with Rehnquist’s analysis, I recognize that his position was grounded in a judicial philosophy to which he was/is committed and is not necessarily a manifestation of a racist attitude. Rehnquist adheres, more or less, to the doctrine of judicial restraint. Judicial restraint is something different than an originalist (or “strict constructionalist”) approach, though Rehnquist often sounds like an originalist. He does not see the court’s proper function as one of actively overturning legislation, even when he personally disagrees with what can happen when a tyrannical majority rears its ugly head. Besides, whatever Rehnquist said 50 years ago, there is no evidence of him trying to reestablish Plessy or undermine Brown.

Bork also notes allegations that Rehnquist was involved in attempts to prevent black voters from voting in Arizona in the 1950s. Again, we have to consider Rehnquist’s motivations for such actions, assuming they are true.

Picture a Republican Party activist being sent to challenge votes in a precinct that was mostly black and most likely to go for a Democrat. Is it more likely that he wanted to block votes because these people were black or because he knew they probably were going to vote for a Democrat? It seems that a Republican Party hack would care more about keeping Democrats out of office than impeding blacks. I think the same would apply to a black Democratic hack going to a predominantly white neighborhood to challenge voters that they knew to be mostly Republican. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not condoning his actions. But while they may make him a sleazy Republican, they don’t make him a racist.

Third, 81 of Rehnquist’s 82 law clerks have been white; Rehnquist hasn’t hired a single black clerk. Bork’s article cites as evidence of Rehnquist’s continued racist tendencies a recent explanation for this disparity. The problem, however, is that Rehnquist said no such thing. Bork’s source fabricated the quotation and misconstrued the tone of a letter the Chief Justice wrote for all nine justices. If Rehnquist wrote for the entire court, are they all racist?

Finally, Bork fills the rest of his column with what I see as irrelevant information. Rehnquist is alleged to have owned houses with deeds prohibiting the sale of the property to blacks or Jews. So what? These clauses are a common, though unfortunate, historical phenomenon. For example, Louisiana had a law making it a misdemeanor, punishable by fine and/or jailtime, for a landlord to allow blacks and whites to live in the same building. The fact that Rehnquist lived under a similar system does not implicate him in having supported it.

We also read that Rehnquist recently displayed “partiality and insensitivity” toward blacks by joining in a “rousing sing-along to ‘Dixie’” at a conference. “Dixie” is perhaps the quintessential representation of southern culture and heritage, and to the best of my knowledge not an overtly racist tune.

Given all of the above, I am not convinced that Bork has established “Rehnquist’s racist record.” However, this does not mean that I think that inviting the Chief Justice to speak at commencement was the best idea. If Calvin indeed has a tradition of commencement speakers who are connected with the institution, it should have either stuck with the tradition or announced its reasons for changing. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t change too much for this year. Rehnquist is coming, and he deserves respect. But the college should take this opportunity to more clearly explain (or establish) its criteria in choosing a speaker.

While I do not agree with all of Rehnquist’s past actions and opinions, it is presumptuous and unfair to assume a racial motivation behind them. Therefore I take issue with Bork’s call to arms, in which he asks that students exercise a social conscience by protesting Rehnquist’s commencement speech. Given the careless assumptions on which his argument is based, is he justified in asking the student body to join in his act of disrespect? If Bork is so anxious to demonstrate Calvin’s racial tolerance, he should leave Rehnquist alone and find a target more deserving of such criticism.

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