Saturday, December 31, 2016

"Hidden Figures" Shows Importance of The 1964 Civil Rights Act

African-American NASA workers compute orbital elements for John Glenn's mission in new movie, 'Hidden Figures'

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Problem of the type the women would have had to know how to compute
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Orbital geometry the women would have had to help compute.

As the superb film "Hidden Figures" has opened, it's provided an eye opening vista on the critical role of African -Americans in the NASA Manned Space Program. The movie basically highlights a little known facet that a team of African-American women - trained in high level 'rocket science' math- actually did the computations that put astronaut  John Glenn into successful orbit in February, 1962.  The women  (Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan) were referred to as "human computers" within NASA.

An exaggeration? Check out the above sample problem and the geometry of a basic artificial satellite orbit (which is what Glenn's craft was) then see for yourself. The irony of it is that despite the skills applied by these talented black women they were treated as second class citizens in the America of 1962. Unable to eat at the same lunch counters as their co-workers, unable to even work in the same room with them or use the same transport (buses)  or use the same rest rooms they to endure not only the sexism of the era but the Jim Crow segregation laws.  Among the other insults, they had to submit a special legal petition to be allowed to attend university math classes at a segregated high school.

Incredibly, some today evidently still have problems with the law (1964 Civil Rights Act) that would have ensured a measure of dignity and respect for these high level NASA workers. According to one distorted meme spread about the law:

" The Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have been two pages long and said specifically that the government can’t keep blacks from voting or turn firehouses onto black women and children, as well as other actions that happened prior to the law. However, the law was ambiguous and opened the doors for it to be used in ways that we were warned against. "

Seriously?   In fact the law (under Title I) did require that voting rules and procedures be applied equally to all races. (See below)  As for  accepting a 2-page mimeograph that the law had to be used solely to prevent fire hose or dog attacks on defenseless people?   Helloooooo! NO one, especially authorities, should  be doing that anyway!  It shouldn't take any law beyond the Bill of Rights in the Constitution to stop it. (But it did require such). It's like saying the only justifiable law limiting the behavior of parents is one to the effect that they should not be able to lock their kids in closets, and beat or starve them to death! That's bare foolishness!

A law defined for civil rights is useless unless it specifically defines those rights and preferably in terms of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, or earlier civil rights acts (such as one from 1875). Thus, all the 1964 Civil Rights law did is extend to African Americans the exact same rights already allowed to whites, mainly in the Jim Crow South. In the case of the African-American women working for NASA, that meant not  (at a minimum) segregating them from their white workers - working on the same damned project.

As for the 1964  Civil Rights Act being "ambiguous" that is pure, unadulterated  horse manure and codswallop. The law was never ambiguous from the time JFK conceived it  (LIFE December 19, 1960, p. 31, 'Kennedy's objectives' ). It was always intended to repeal the Jim Crow laws, abominations that declared - for example that the team African -American women working for NASA had to go to the back of the bus, and couldn't be served with their white coworkers at lunch counters.The key provisions are laid out below and not are in any way ambiguous.

Title I

Barred unequal application of voter registration requirements.. It did not eliminate literacy tests, which were one of the main methods used to exclude Black voters, other racial minorities, and poor Whites in the South, nor did it address economic retaliation, police repression, or physical violence against nonwhite voters. While the Act did require that voting rules and procedures be applied equally to all races, it did not abolish the concept of voter "qualification", that is to say, it accepted the idea that citizens do not have an automatic right to vote but rather might have to meet some standard beyond citizenship.It was the Voting Rights Act, enacted one year later in 1965, that directly addressed and eliminated most voting qualifications beyond citizenship.

Title II

Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; exempted private clubs without defining the term "private".

(The last aspect we will get to in a bit)

Title III

Prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, color, religion or national origin.

Title IV

Encouraged the desegregation of public schools and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file suits to enforce said act..

Title V

Expanded the Civil Rights Commission established by the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957 with additional powers, rules and procedures.

Title VI

Prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds. If an agency is found in violation of Title VI, that agency may lose its federal funding.

Under the General provision of the Act we see: This title declares it to be the policy of the United States that discrimination on the ground of race, color, or national origin shall not occur in connection with programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance and authorizes and directs the appropriate Federal departments and agencies to take action to carry out this policy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it makes it clear what the extent of the law's objectives were and tied them to federal assistance. This is why Churches or hospitals receiving such assistance cannot willy nilly engage in segregation practices. A trenchant moment in the film occurs when one of the NASA women informs her boss (played by Kevin Costner): "There are no colored bathrooms in this building or any building outside the west campus - which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself'.

The Act recognized  such outrages were unacceptable. It recognized that refusing positive civil rights, like being able to order food at PUBLIC lunch counters, or attend schools of their choice meant a hollow law, actually devoid of rights.  In this sense, the "right' to not be fire hosed or beaten with truncheons or shot is only the most minimal of negative rights, but not true rights - since those actions ought not be inflicted on a fellow innocent human anyway! How hard is this stuff to grasp?

But this sort of demeaning and regressive thought is typical for too many currently under the influence of fake news in Trumpland.  Others, the Steve Bannon types -  offended that their white privilege is now being challenged- want to trash any and all earlier laws that protect minorities. What is white privilege ? It's often not encoded in any formalism or legal language. It's  the ability to walk down a suburban street or drive and know in your little white heart of hearts you won't be stopped by cops, tased or given a good old fashion boot kicking- or be shot in the back. THAT is what  the most fundamental translation of white privilege is about. The conscious or unconscious sense of entitlement that little white you is basically immune to the slings and arrows that may dog others of darker complexion, oh....who also don't get called "black apes" by little white likes of you.

Another wayward and misplaced interpretation of the Civil Rights Act is one circulating on some blogs:

"The law has outlawed freedom of association, private business operating as it sees fit and any number of private clubs."

In fact the law has done no such thing. IF one establishes a truly PRIVATE club  then he is  indeed entitled to associate with whomever he desires - KKK, Neo-Nazis, proto- Confederates, and exclude those with whom he doesn't.. A "private business' is more problematical. Such as what? No businesses I know are truly private because they operate with licenses in the public domain.  A "private" business, would - by definition - have to limit its very potential for profit and sales by excluding populations. In more than one sense, a "private business" is an oxymoron. This is probably why the 1964 Act left open the definition, it would have been a fool's errand to do otherwise.

Hence, all genuine businesses are subject to laws of commerce which mandate trade in the public domain. The 1964 civil rights act merely formalizes the already existing trade laws which ought to be followed anyway. Our Trumpy brethren don't seem to know that, however.  The type of blabber here about "associations" reminds me  of former Loyola University prof Walter Block's absurd arguments made several years ago in a NY Times piece:

"Woolworth's had lunchroom counters and no blacks were allowed. Did they have a right to do that? Yes, they did! No one is compelled to associate with people against their will."

But consider the consequences if this bat shit crazy meme was extended willy-nilly so that anyone could apply it. Pharmacies could refuse serving people they regarded as 'misfits'  - say denying birth control pills to young, single women or not even permitting blacks to cross the doorway.

Owners of football teams could decide that they want no Jews, blacks, or gays entering their stadiums and they might put that into place. Private hospitals -operating as businesses - might decide that they want no blacks, Jews or gays on their premises either. Restaurants would feel free to bar anyone they think is marginal, including those who look like 'thugs' - or  whoever doesn't fit flitty criteria like hair length, or quality of dress.

In other words, you'd invite a society bordering on chaos, and don't think for a moment that  the millions of excluded folk would just sit there and take it! It is no wonder that Block describes himself as an "anarcho-capitalist".   

Block, like our Trumpy anti-Civil Rights brethren, argues:

"If it is morally wrong to force someone to work for you against their will, how is it any less wrong to force someone else to trade with another against their will? ."

Which is total nonsense and shows the abject ignorance at work in terms of grasping the nature of commercial laws.  That is, the restaurateur or trader is afforded certain privileges (via  licensing) to trade or provide services (such as food) in the public domain. Hence, the so called "freedom" is limited for business owners to do whatever they want. Their commercial warp and woof can't include refusal of service unless there are extenuating circumstances, i.e. the customers enter drunk and disorderly. The public trader doesn't have the latitude or luxury to refuse service on the basis of race, religion, skin color or sexual orientation. Sorry!

But there is an out! If positive civil rights objectors really want to impose their own subjective limitations on business associations they can devise their own private businesses. Good luck in earning any kind of sustainable profit with just a tiny subset of consumers!

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