In the wake of a smear campaign of "race-baiting and dog whistle politics" against Debo Adegbile, President Obama's highly-qualified nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has formally called on right-wing media to raise the level of discourse and abandon their efforts at "character assassination" and "racially charged rhetoric."
On January 23, conservative newspaper The Washington Times ran an extremely offensive caricature attacking Adegbile. The caricature was a reference to Adegbile's successful appellate representation of a convicted murderer whose death sentence was twice confirmed to be unconstitutional. Adegbile's work on that case as one of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's top lawyers has been called "consistent with the finest tradition of this country's legal profession" by the American Bar Association.
The Times' caricature, on the other hand, referred to his nomination as "a slap in every policeman's face," a reference to the victim of Adegbile's former client.
The Leadership Conference -- a coalition of 200 of the nation's leading civil rights organizations -- responded with a statement calling the caricature "reminiscent of the racist iconography of the late 19th century designed to dehumanize and stereotype African Americans," a condemnation of the right-wing media attacks against Adegbile. The January 30 statement also called on the Times and Fox News specifically to "tone down this rhetoric and have a reasoned and substantive conversation on this important nomination":
Until today, we've ignored the race-baiting and dog whistle politics that form the basis of opposition to Debo Adegbile's nomination to head the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. We've disregarded the distortions about Adegbile's efforts to ensure that all Americans can live and work free of discrimination.
But this buffoonish and racially tinged caricature is beyond the pale of acceptable mainstream debate. This cartoon is reminiscent of the racist iconography of late 19th century America designed to dehumanize and stereotype African Americans who were only beginning to throw off the shackles of chattel slavery.
Debo Adegbile is one of the preeminent civil rights lawyers of his generation with broad and bipartisan support for his confirmation. He's the son of immigrants who worked his way through law school to defend American democracy in the U.S. Supreme Court. But to the Washington Times, Fox News, and others, he's a buffoonish caricature and a "cop killer." The American Bar Association has debunked this lie, and wrapping it in racially charged rhetoric does not make it any more true.
This type of character assassination harkens back to the baseless and unrelenting attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s McCarthy hearings, which led counsel Joseph Welch to ask Senator McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
The head of the civil rights division is a vitally important office charged with defending the rights of all under the U.S. Constitution. There is no longer room for the dog whistle politics of yesteryear in a 21st century debate about an extremely well-qualified nominee to an important position such as this. We're calling on all of Adegbile's critics to tone down this rhetoric and have a reasoned and substantive conversation on this important nomination.