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The Original Sin of Frank Rich

The Timesman as would-be biblical and constitutional scholar.

by
John Rosenberg

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July 7, 2010 - 12:06 am

Frank Rich’s most recent Sunday column in the New York Times, titled “Fourth of July 1776, 1964, 2010,” begins:

ALL men may be created equal, but slavery, America’s original sin of inequality, was left unaddressed in the Declaration of Independence signed 234 years ago today. Of all the countless attempts to dispel that shadow over the nation’s birth, few were more ambitious than the hard-fought bill Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law just in time for another Fourth of July, 46 summers ago.

Rich’s reference to slavery as America’s “original sin” is of course not original, but I do believe it is quite revealing of not only his but a wide swath of contemporary liberalism’s view of the United States. There is debate among theologians — both among and within many of the world’s religions — over what the concept entails, but most trace our flawed human nature (whether merely imperfect or inherently imperfectible) to Adam’s fall. Mainstream American Protestantism’s conception of original sin, for example, flows from John Calvin’s belief that:

[H]umans inherit Adamic guilt and are in a state of sin from the moment of conception. This inherently sinful nature (the basis for the Calvinistic doctrine of “total depravity”) results in a complete alienation from God and the total inability of humans to achieve reconciliation with God based on their own abilities. Not only do individuals inherit a sinful nature due to Adam’s fall, but since he was the federal head and representative of the human race, all whom he represented inherit the guilt of his sin by imputation. Redemption by Jesus Christ is the only remedy.

Now, Frank Rich is far from Calvinist, although as he has written of his father’s family in Ghost Light, his memoir, of an upbringing not unlike my own:

It would have been hard to guess that the Riches were Jewish, since they spoke no Hebrew, ate pork chops, and, in further defiance of their nominal religion’s practice, named their firstborn sons after their living fathers.

Thus, though neither a Calvinist nor even, at least theologically, a Protestant, and even though Judaism rejects original sin, Rich’s view of slavery as America’s “original sin,” as a blot on our national soul that can be overcome, if at all, only by more strenuous “good works” (such as embracing Jesus Obama and voting Democratic for years on end) than we seem capable of performing is a not very pale reflection of the orthodox Christian view of human nature.

After his opening “original sin” indictment of the American character, Rich devotes the rest of his July 4 screed to extolling liberal deities — Thurgood Marshall, the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and denouncing the scurrilous Republicans (and the equally scurrilous — until he saw The Light — and recently departed Robert Byrd) who blasphemed against them. Thus Chief Justice Roberts is guilty of “conservative self-righteousness” (liberals, being righteous, presumably can’t be “self-righteous”) for “nibbling away at Brown v. Board of Education in 2007” by having the  audacity to proclaim that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Since Rich regards Thurgood Marshall as a god, “a hero of our history, a brave and brilliant lawyer whose advocacy in many civil rights cases, and most especially Brown v. Board of Education, helped open the doors for landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he treats any criticism of him, even negative “mentions” of him, as virtually sacrilegious.

What is so odd about Rich’s worship of Marshall, Brown, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that and he and his fellow acolytes in the Church of American Liberalism have so thoroughly turned their back on the “without regard” principle of official colorblindness that underlay and animated all three.

As I argued in a long post (with citations) on the meaning of Brown, Marshall’s long march leading to Brown involved argument after argument in legal briefs undermining the legitimacy of racial classification by the state. Examples:

  • Classifications and distinctions based on race or color have no moral or legal validity in our society. They are contrary to our constitution and laws. Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents, 332 U.S. 631 (1948)
  • There is no understandable factual basis for classification by race. … Sweatt v. Painter, 339 US 629 (1950)
  • Racial criteria are irrational, irrelevant, odious to our way of life and specifically proscribed under the Fourteenth Amendment. McLaurin v. Oklahoma, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)

Thus it should be no surprise that Marshall argued the same thing in Brown:

The Fourteenth Amendment precludes a state from imposing distinctions or classifications based upon race and color alone. The State of Kansas has no power thereunder to use race as a factor in affording educational opportunities to its citizens. [Marshall’s Brief in Brown, p. 5]

As Robert Carter, who signed the brief and argued Brown along with Marshall, asserted in the oral argument, “our position is that there is no rational basis for classification based on race.” I could go on (as in fact I did in the long post linked above).

Similarly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Rich still claims to regard as an icon, requires official colorblindness as clearly as words can (even though courts have “construed” it otherwise). Thus, in Title VI:

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

“Lest this be unclear,” as I noted here, and as it apparently is to Rich et al., “the Department of Justice’s Title VI Legal Manual explains that discrimination occurs when ‘similarly situated persons are treated differently because of their race, color, or national origin.’”

In his later years Thurgood Marshall abandoned the principle that he advocated so effectively in his earlier years, the principle embodied in his greatest success, Brown, and the Civil Rights Act providing that every American should be treated “without regard” to race, creed, or color. Like most liberals of his and subsequent generations, he began to demand color consciousness instead of colorblindness, preferential treatment instead of equal treatment.

Frank Rich is perfectly free to agree, as he does, with the later Marshall, to prefer color-conscious preferences to colorblind equality. What he is not free to do is what he did in his July 4 column (a reprise of similar arguments in many columns): accuse those who still adhere to the colorblind principle articulated so well by Marshall over the years and embodied in Brown and the Civil Rights Act of being “self-righteous” and “delusional.”

If there is anyone in the ongoing debate over civil rights who richly (if you’ll pardon the pun) deserves to be described as self-righteous and delusional, it is Frank Rich himself.

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.
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