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Johnson and Griffen

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If the owners of the two existing race tracks in Arkansas were seeking legislation giving themselves exclusive rights to casino gambling in the state, a franchise worth many millions of dollars, it might be appropriate for a legislator to call for criminal background checks. (Or, if he was sponsoring a bill to aid the track owners’ scheme, to volunteer for one himself.) Similarly, if a land developer was pushing to build a subdivision that might endanger Central Arkansas’s drinking water, it could well be in order for a conscientious legislator to suggest background checks. But when these matters came before the legislature earlier this year, Sen. Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow, did not mumble a word about checking backgrounds. Instead, he pressed for legislation supporting the track owners and the developer. It is only now that Senator Johnson seeks background checks. And for whom? Victims of Hurricane Katrina, who have sought refuge in Arkansas and whose only offense is being (mostly) poor and black. As Gov. Mike Huckabee has said, “[T]hese are not detainees or prisoners, but American citizens displaced through no fault of their own. They are primarily our guests, neighbors and hardworking people who have been through a horrendous ordeal.” They deserve our sympathy, not our suspicion and our prejudice. Judge Wendell Griffen has been thinking about the flood victims also, from a much different perspective than Senator Johnson, and as we’ve all surely learned by now, what Judge Griffen thinks, he says, and what he says, he means. The judge told an NAACP gathering in Conway that the Bush administration’s mishandling of the hurricane disaster revealed “the scab of racism and classism.” (He adapted those remarks for a guest column on this page.) Whether the administration’s failures were the result of “racism and classism” or simple incompetence, or both, is subject to debate, but Judge Griffen is not alone in his suspicions. Even pre-Katrina, this administration has been indifferent if not outright hostile to the poor and people of color, sufficient justification for the judge’s assertion that Bush’s sending his snarly vice president to New Orleans to hug flood victims was the height of hypocrisy. Ghastly, is what it was. Hadn’t they suffered enough? In the same speech — some speech — Judge Griffen spoke out against the bullies of the Religious Right, who have intimidated too many Americans with their questioning of others’ faith and patriotism. Griffen, who is a Baptist minister as well as a judge, called James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “pimps of piety.” It was time somebody did. Some will question the propriety of a judge saying what Griffen did. The need for truth can outweigh the need for propriety.

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