‘SLOW-MOTION BHOPAL’

Edison, NJ

Thank you for Mark Hertsgaard’s “Bhopal’s Legacy” [May 24], on the struggle of the survivors to hold Union Carbide and its new owner, Dow Chemical, accountable for the world’s worst industrial catastrophe. As an attorney representing the Bhopal victims in US federal court since 1999, I have been intimately involved in virtually all legal aspects of the survivors’ struggle.

Discovery documents obtained from Union Carbide establish that the company transferred dangerously inadequate and unproven technology to its Indian affiliate, which not only caused the ghastly tragedy of 1984 but played the key role in triggering another “slow-motion Bhopal”: the chemical contamination of at least ten residential communities through thousands of metric tons of chemicals dumped in a landfill in 1992. These pollutants have spread through the drinking water of nearly 20,000 people.

The survivors won an important victory last March in a decision from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled that our claims against Carbide, including those for clean-up environmental remediation, should be allowed to proceed. Yet lack of sufficient public attention or outrage in the United States allows Union Carbide and Dow to adopt an intransigent attitude toward the Bhopal survivors, even as the companies resolve other claims against them from American plaintiffs for decades-old liabilities.

H. RAJAN SHARMA


RETHINK MEDIA CONCENTRATION

New York City

Eric Alterman, in his May 24 “Stop the Presses” column, writes that the refusal of the Sinclair Broadcast Group to air Nightline‘s listing of the Iraq war dead “demonstrated the dangers to democratic discourse of allowing too much media power to be concentrated in too few hands.” But Sinclair isn’t really a media giant; it owns sixty-two TV stations out of nearly 2,000 in the United States. ABC, the Disney-owned producer of Nightline, certainly is one of the biggies. And in this case, the biggie was closer to doing the right thing than the smaller outfit.

The media-concentration thesis is in need of a serious rethink. The country is full of regional chains that produce truly awful local newspapers; the major national dailies are far better. Instead of concentration, we should be talking about the kind of media produced by shareholder-owned companies operating in competitive markets under the discipline of maximizing profits. Concentration is often the natural byproduct of competition, as losers disappear or are taken over by winners. To focus on concentration alone is, as economists say, to misspecify the problem.

DOUG HENWOOD
Left Business Observer


BLOCKING BLACK VOTES, THEN & NOW

Anchorage

With its sad details of the “spoiled” Florida ballots of African-American voters in 2000, Greg Palast’s “Vanishing Votes” [May 17] shocks twice–once for the contemporary story it tells and again for the old one it recalls.

In the summer of 1964, while the most courageous of my generation went to Mississippi to register voters, I was one of five or six college students who spent our days squinting at fuzzy microfilm images of voter registration applications from Southern states. We were compiling data for the civil rights division of the Justice Department to help persuade Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act. The applications identified the would-be voters’ race and required them to write a brief passage to demonstrate literacy. Our job was to classify the applications by race into four categories: applicants with apparent high literacy skills accepted; apparent high literacy skills rejected; apparent low literacy skills accepted; apparent low literacy skills rejected. We rarely found white applicants who had been rejected, even when their “tests” would have failed in fourth grade; and we rarely found African-Americans accepted, even when their applications showed high literacy skills.

People died in that summer’s voter registration drives, and the following year Congress outlawed the use of literacy tests to screen voters. Now that we know how spoiled ballots and automated purges have replaced literacy tests, it’s time to remember that we’ve lived through this story before.

MARTHA WINNACKER


BROWN BY LAW

We heard from teachers, civil rights activists, professors, lawyers and regular folk on our May 3 “Brown at 50″ issue on the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Herewith, a sample. –The Editors

Corvallis, Ore.

The first time the federal courts dealt with the issue of public school desegregation was not in 1954 but in 1946, with the case of Mendez v. Westminister School District. The Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled that the segregation of Mexican-American children, based on their ethnicity in Orange County, California, violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Mendez was closely watched by the NAACP and was instrumental in designing the legal strategy that would later go into Brown.

The second case was Hernandez v. Texas, decided only two months before Brown. This was the first case ever argued by Mexican-American attorneys before the Supreme Court. In Hernandez, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause did not apply only to African-Americans and whites. The Court ruled that the Constitution prohibited discrimination based on race period, opening the way for other historically oppressed groups to seek legal remedy. Knowing these legal connections reminds us that the struggle for civil rights has always been a cross-cultural effort and keeps us aware of the need today for multicultural coalitions in the ongoing effort for racial equality.

JOSÉ-ANTONIO OROSCO

Minneapolis

I was dismayed to see no mention of the way American Indian nations were, or were not, impacted by Brown. As Vine Deloria once remarked, African-Americans were treated as draft animals; American Indians, as wild animals. The parallels and divergences go on from there. In the same year as Brown, the government embarked on one of its more disastrous policies, the termination of a number of tribes (e.g., the Menominee of Wisconsin and the Klamath of Oregon) as political and legal entities. While many African-Americans welcomed Brown, American Indians fought what was termed their “Emancipation Proclamation.”

Other comparisons abound. In 1896, when the Court handed down Plessy, establishing the separate-but-equal principle, it also, the very same day, handed down Talton v. Mayes, a case in which the Court correctly held that Indian nations were not subject to the Constitution and could prosecute their own citizens for murder.

In 1903, the year W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, the Supreme Court handed down Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, in which the Court held that treaty-established resources and rights could be unilaterally abrogated by the government. One senator described it as “the Dred Scott decision No. 2, except that in this case the victim is red instead of black.”

While many blacks have gained a measure of inclusion in society, many American Indians seek to retain a measure of exclusion because of their pre-constitutional status, treaty rights and reserved lands.

DAVID E. WILKINS

Westport, Conn.

I was pleased to read of the critical role played by Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mamie. The so-called doll study Dr. Clark used in testing black children in segregated schools proved that as a result of segregation, these children had a poor self-image. This contribution of the Clarks, social scientists, was credited by Justice Warren Burger in the unanimous landmark opinion in what has become known as “Footnote 11″ of the decision. In my book, Toward Justice and Humanity: The Writings of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, Scholar of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, I point out that this was the first time in the Court’s history that it admitted social science studies as hard evidence. It also catapulted Dr. Clark into a leading role as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, when he worked behind the scenes with Robert F. Kennedy and virtually all the nationally known civil rights leaders. He is a hidden hero of the Brown decision.

WOODY KLEIN

Fort Wayne, Ind.

One success story of desegregation in the North: In 1989, Fort Wayne Community Schools and a biracial group of parents agreed to an out-of-court settlement that made every one of the district’s fifty-three schools racially balanced. That’s more than 35,000 children who attend classes every day with kids of a different color. Minority kids continue to close the achievement gap. To be sure, the formal requirements of the settlement expired with the 1996-97 school year. But the magnet program that created such a success remains in effect, more popular than ever. In fact, you no longer hear a whisper of controversy. No one clamors for a return to neighborhood schools. Brown‘s legacy here still means equal opportunity for every child.

LARRY HAYES

Baltimore

I was sorry none of the writers looking back at Brown looked forward with a broader vision. The problem today is not only that far too many people of color are still cut off from opportunity for a good life but also that more and more other people are as well. The plutocrats and would-be oligarchs would be only too happy to see middle-class liberals speak solely in terms of racial justice, but at this stage in our history racial justice has to be integrated into a broader program of social justice that recognizes what is happening to working-class and poor people. There are grassroots groups and some unions that are working at it, but many well-intentioned people still need to learn.

KATHARINE W. RYLAARSDAM