Clay Wirestone: Derek Schmidt salutes Black history while seeking to stifle Black Kansas voters (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Derek Schmidt wants you to share in his excitement for Black History Month.

Why, on Sunday he tweeted the following: “Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining settlement of freed slaves west of the Mississippi. Now a National Historic Site in Graham County, it is well worth visiting during Black History Month – or any time.”

Meanwhile, he’s asking the Kansas Supreme Court to allow discrimination against Black Kansans in the redistricting process. He also called critical race theory — a concept not taught in a single K-12 classroom in Kansas — “a radical new curriculum.” Fake outrage about CRT has been used in the months since to target education about our nation’s racist past.

In other words, Schmidt cares about Black Kansans as long as they’re politically powerless and schoolchildren don’t learn about their struggles.

What a dilemma. On one hand, Schmidt wants to be seen as gubernatorial material, open and accepting to all Kansas. He showed up at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day memorial walk around the Capitol, a couple of rows behind his opponent in November, Gov. Laura Kelly.

Republicans in Kansas have made the calculation, however, that Black people threaten their ironclad hold of political power in Kansas. Thus they brutally sliced through Wyandotte County in their congressional redistricting map, dividing one of the state’s most diverse communities in a bid to thwart the reelection of Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids.

A map was drawn, then vetoed, and then the veto was overridden after painful arm-twisting.

Two lawsuits challenging that map followed, both filed in Wyandotte County District Court rather than federal court. With the U.S. Supreme Court ever more amenable to gerrymandering, I suspect the plaintiffs saw the state court system as more hospitable to their case.

Schmidt raced to the Kansas Supreme Court with a galling request. He wants the justices to declare they have no say in the situation.

“Plaintiffs’ political gerrymandering claim is not justiciable under the Kansas Constitution,” Schmidt wrote. “No judicially manageable standard for evaluating such claims exists, Kansas courts have not historically entertained such claims, and the Kansas Constitution has nothing at all to say about political gerrymandering.”

To summarize, the attorney general of the state of Kansas believes that state courts have no role in stopping obvious racially discriminatory gerrymandering. Kansas judges have no ability to make sure the voices of everyone counts equally at election time.

Happy Black History Month!

Schmidt’s supporters (and I assume he has some) will claim that he’s just doing his job as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. That was the defense back when he joined a multistate lawsuit aimed at overturning the 2020 election, and when he joined a lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule it legal to fire transgender people. He was merely looking for legal clarity.

Funny, isn’t it, how these searches for legal clarity seem to all benefit one party? Did you notice how they aid and abet discrimination and anti-democratic power grabs? It’s just peculiar.

Let’s head back to Nicodemus.

According to the National Park service, Nicodemus was founded in 1877 by Black settlers leaving the post-Reconstruction South. Slavery had ended, but Jim Crow had arrived, and decades of struggle against segregation remained. Kansas offered a kind of rough-hewn opportunity.

“Established as an all-Black community, the founders of Nicodemus envisioned a town built on the ideals of independence and self-determination,” the park service writes. “The community experienced rapid social and economic growth in the early years and many speculated that Nicodemus would become a major stop for the railroad. It became clear by 1888, however, that the railroad and the predicted economic boom would not come.”

The great dream may have ended, but life went on. Black families established farms, and a few have persisted to the present day. The settlement celebrates a yearly homecoming. As of September, 23 people still lived there.

A cynic might say that’s an ideal town for Derek Schmidt to highlight during Black History Month. It has few residents and poses little political threat.

Yet the dream of Nicodemus — the dream of the “Exodusters” who settled there — was to escape oppression. In the South, they faced barriers to voting and political participation set up by racist white people. Kansas and other western states offered an alternative.

Schmidt still has the opportunity to fulfill that dream. He could drop his petition to the Kansas Supreme Court. He could announce his opposition to the blatantly discriminatory congressional map. He could support teaching the actual, painful history of our country in public schools. 

That would be a worthy tribute to Nicodemus.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mark McCormick: Does CRT make white students feel bad? Try being a Black student (Column)

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“So much of the ever-changing debate about critical race theory — a term for an academic body of work not taught in K-12 public schools — centers the feelings of white students. We rarely seem concerned about how Black students have felt in public schools,” Mark McCormick writes in this column for Kansas Reflector.


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