Probe Ordered in State Panel’s Sale of ‘Racist’ Book
Gov. George Deukmejian on Friday ordered an inquiry into how and why his appointees to the state Bicentennial Commission approved the sale of a textbook that characterized black children as “pickaninnies” and American slave owners as the “worst victims” of slavery.
The governor acted within two hours after state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) called a press conference to demand that the three Deukmejian appointees be fired for endorsing what the legislator termed a “racist and bigoted” text published by the ultraconservative National Center for Constitutional Studies.
Hart was joined in his appeal to Deukmejian by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), whose great-great-grandmother was a slave.
“It is outrageous that any group carrying the state’s official blessing could associate itself with literature so blatantly racist, not to mention simply inaccurate,” Brown said in a statement.
Kevin Brett, deputy press secretary to Deukmejian, said the governor ordered his aides to “contact our appointees to the Bicentennial Commission to ascertain their decision-making process in deciding to market the book--what were the reasons, what was the background.” Meantime, he said, Deukmejian was “reviewing” the controversial passages in “The Making of America.”
The book was selected by the five-member commission last March as a fund-raising device to help finance commission activities in the 200th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Constitution. But when controversy erupted Thursday, sales abruptly ceased, said commission spokesman Ray Kabaker.
“We’re embarrassed by it,” he said of the book. The spokesman said that when the book was suggested to the commission by the publisher, commissioners “leafed through it” but no one “reviewed it thoroughly” before approving it on a 3-1 vote.
He said 215 copies were sold for $24.95 a copy, and the commission netted $2,145.
“An error in judgment was made in selling this book or any book,” he said. “We should be perceived as a bipartisan, nonprofit foundation.”
The three Deukmejian appointees who voted for the textbook are chairwoman Jane A. Crosby of South Pasadena, a Republican activist; Coanne Cubete of Fountain Valley, and Marguerite P. Justice, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission and that panel’s first black woman member. Jack Rakove, an appointee of the state Senate Rules Committee and a Stanford University history professor, cast the only “no” vote. (There were only four commissioners at the time because the seat to be filled by Speaker Brown was vacant.)
A commission spokesman said the commissioners were not available for comment.
In one chapter of “The Making of America,” slavery is discussed briefly by the author, W. Cleon Skousen, a former assistant to the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and since 1971 the president and founder of the National Center for Constitutional Studies based in Salt Lake City.
‘A Human Problem’
In a straight forward narrative, Skousen observes, “The most degraded bondage is outright slavery, where one human being pretends to own another, ‘body and soul.’ ” He also writes, “Slavery is not a racial problem. It is a human problem.”
Controversy swirls, however, around nine pages in which Skousen quotes material written by the late professor Fred Albert Shannon. In this, Shannon contends, among other things, that “the slave had a deliberateness of motion which no amount of supervision could quicken. If the owner got ahead of the gang, they all would shirk behind his back.”
At another point, Shannon writes: “If pickaninnies ran naked, it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school, they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates.” He asserts also that “numerous observers” agreed that “brutality was no more common in the black belt than among free labor elsewhere and that the slave owners were the worst victims of the system.”
Further, Shannon writes: “The gangs (of slaves) in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains.”
Skousen was reported by his secretary to be unavailable for comment Friday. She said Skousen, as a college student in 1934, read the Shannon text and decided to include it in his “The Making of America.”
Racial Aspersions Denied
However, responding earlier in the week to similar charges by a Washington-based liberal lobbying and education organization, People for the American Way, Skousen denied that his book cast any racial aspersions. He said the word “pickaninnies” is “used as the blacks themselves used it. It was a colloquial term with no deprecatory implication.” He said the word was not used in the material he himself wrote.
Commission spokesman Kabaker said Chairwoman Crosby had “heard Skousen speak and thought of him as a person who had a scholarly background with regard to the Constitution” and supported Skousen’s suggestion that the book be used as a fund-raising device.
Kabaker said commission Executive Director Jeffrey D. Allen until about four years ago was the West Coast director of Skousen’s organization. He said Allen, who sent word he did not want to be interviewed, arranged with Skousen to obtain the books for the commission at the “normal 40% discount.”
Hart carried legislation in 1984 that appropriated $50,000 in taxpayer funds to match private contributions for the commission as part of the national recognition of the Constitution’s 200th year.
“There is absolutely no place at all for a book like this to be in any way sanctioned or promoted or sold by an official state commission,” Hart told reporters. “The only appropriate action that the governor can reasonably take at this point is to fire the people he appointed.”