Playing the race card

Republicans once again are seeking to expand the wedge between working-class whites and minorities with the Civil Rights Act of 1997, which would bar the federal government from using race or gender preferences in hiring, contracting or government programs. "The system of race and gender preferences stands as a massive impediment to a united America in which all Americans are treated as individuals who are equal in the eyes of the law," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), who introduced the bill in the House. Senate sponsors include Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

Those sentiments are fine until you consider that, 33 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act (and 122 years after passage of the original Civil Rights Act), black, Hispanic and female workers continue to earn less, on average, than comparable white men. Minorities are underrepresented in management, professions, the media and university enrollments. Black people continue to have twice the unemployment rate of white people. Schools in predominantly black and Hispanic communities are chronically underfunded in comparison with schools in white neighborhoods, which undermines the opportunities of black and Hispanic students. Yet there is an outcry among white men that they are discriminated against?

The anti-affirmative action debate is nothing more than an attempt to distract that white working class from the impact of other economic forces. As Molly Ivins has pointed out, the main sources of job loss among white workers have to do not with affirmative action, but with factory relocations and labor contracting outside the United States, computerization and automation, and corporate downsizing.

In higher education, although the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996 struck down racial preferences for admission to universities and professional schools, it allowed other non-racial discrimination, such as preference for the children of alumni, which still tends to favor upper-class whites. Working-class whites who work their way through community college and a less-prestigious university, as plaintiff Cheryl Hopwood did, only to be denied admission to the University of Texas Law School, will not fare appreciably better as a result of the Hopwood decision, whether or not black or Hispanic students are admitted.

We believe, as the University of Texas unsuccessfully argued, that having a diversity of students improves the school and is a worthy goal. Most importantly, those minority students, once admitted, made their grades. As long as admitting a black student -- or a rich white student with an influential daddy -- denies Cheryl Hopwood a seat in the law school, the system is broken. But it seems to us the only way to ensure equal opportunity without taking away from working-class whites is to increase opportunities for all. That would require something like a new Marshall plan for the United States, something neither the Republicans nor conservative Democrats are prepared to undertake. It's a lot cheaper to play the race card.

Tax reform: Guess who wins?

Tax breaks being drawn in Congress would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. That comes as no great surprise to observers of tax policymakers, although it contradicts the the House Ways and Means apologists who claim that most of the tax breaks would benefit the middle class -- families with incomes between $20,000 and $75,000. But the Republicans were only scoring the first few years of the tax plan, when the middle class was getting the $500 child credits and deductions for higher education.

The investor class will gladly concede those baubles to the middle class in exchange for capital gains and inheritance tax breaks. After those high-dollar tax breaks are phased in, the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of Americans -- those with incomes above $300,000 a year -- would increase by an average of $27,000 a year.

Overall, 50 percent of the benefits would end up going to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers. Families with incomes below $20,000 would end up losing money because not only would they get little or no tax relief, but they would lose government benefits that are cut back from other programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and child health care. And Senate Republicans are talking about cutting back on Medicare coverage for the elderly and disabled. The GOP plans would further widen a gap between the richest and the poorest families that has been growing for the past 20 years.

A Democratic alternative proposed by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York would have earmarked 70 percent of the tax cuts for the middle class, compared with 21 percent in the Ways and Means plan, the budget center found. The Rangel plan would give 15 percent of the tax breaks to the top 20 percent of the population, while the Ways and Means plan would provide 80 percent of its tax cut benefits to the wealthiest one-fifth, those who make more than $94,500 a year for a family of four.

And the whole Rangel plan -- with a price tag of $20 billion a year -- would cost less than half as much as the Ways and Means proposal would give away in capital gains and estate tax cuts to the wealthy.

So why are President Clinton and the Republicans in Congress catering to the Wall Street investors? How about the $6 billion spent on the 1996 election campaign. Gifts that keep on giving.

As Chuck Hassebrook notes in the Center for Rural Affairs newsletter for June, "A well-designed estate tax can preserve economic opportunity for people of modest means by preventing excessive concentration of land and wealth." Estate taxes, which now exempt $600,000 for each spouse, should be simplified so that couples automatically qualify for the $1.2 million estate tax exemption that now requires an attorney to jump through legal hurdles.

"Combined with the special use valuation available to family farms, that would typically exempt an estate with $1.5 million of farmland and $200,000 worth of cash or other investments," Hassebrook writes. "That would exempt 95 percent of farm estates. Some larger family farms would still pay estate taxes, but not at levels that would force the heirs to sell the farm."

[Yes, city dwellers, a small farm on choice land could easily be worth $1.5 million. That's why it is important to keep farming families on the land -- because young would-be farmers cannot be expected to come up with that kind of money.]

"But the tax would cut into the ability of the heirs of large farms to use the earnings on their inheritance to buy more land. That would level the playing field, to at least some degree, between those born into wealthy families and those who are not. Opportunity should not depend on being born into wealth."

Reform starts at home

The power players in Washington are avoiding action on campaign finance reform, but William Greider notes in the June 26 Rolling Stone that "clean elections" proposals similar to Maine's new law, which basically provides public financing for candidates who swear off private contributions, are active in at least 14 states. A "clean money" bill narrowly failed in the Connecticut Assembly in May. Greider attributes the congressional inaction on campaign finance reform to a perception that except for reform agitators nobody really cares about the corruption influence of campaign money. "I have a hunch that the insiders are wrong this time," he wrote, "that public revulsion will deepen as we hear more about the fund-raising scandal swamping Bill Clinton and the Republicans. The real barrier to reform, I suspect, is the public's sense of utter resignation about politics accomplishing anything worthwhile for it."

Greider reminds us, "it's important to remember this bit of history: All of the great American reform movements -- from civil rights to child-labor laws -- started far from Washington, D.C. In state legislatures and town halls, activists first pushed their bold experiments locally. Their energy and momentum eventually led to legislative action at the national level."

Another reform was adopted in Arkansas last fall, to provide a $50 tax credit to reimburse individuals who contribute to political campaigns, which is supposed to help people of modest means create their own PACs and support their own candidates and agendas. Greider proposed a similar, if broader, tax credit in his 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People.

De-militarize the border

The U.S. House of Representatives moved to make a bad situation worse on June 20 when it voted 269-119 to station up to 10,000 U.S. troops along the border with Mexico to halt immigration and drug smuggling. The military already is supporting drug detection operations with AWACS surveillance planes and a relatively small task force operating out of Fort Bliss. A Marine from that force apparently shot and killed a local teen-ager May 20 in an incident that has raised questions about the militarization of the border.

Military officials said the 18-year-old youth, a local rancher, fired his .22 caliber rifle at least twice at a military surveillance team, which returned fire after the second shot. But state officials investigating the incident point out discrepancies in the military's version of events, such as whether the boy was aiming at the Marines or shooting at some other target and why it took 22 minutes from the time the boy was shot until an ambulance was called after Border Patrol agents and a sheriff's deputy arrived on the scene.

The shooting illustrates why the military is not interchangeable with trained law enforcement officers. Despite the "War on Drugs" rhetoric, there is no military threat along the Mexican border. It is wrong-headed to put soldiers there who are trained for entirely different sorts of tasks and expect them to behave like police officers.

-- Jim Cullen

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