I don’t know that Republicans are necessarily racist. But when they empower racists as a means to achieve their precious tax cuts, they look an awful lot like racists.
Consider President Trump, who as a candidate was endorsed by former KKK leader David Duke and the modern KKK, and notably showed reluctance in disavowing David Duke while showing no such restraint in attacking the media or celebrities who criticized him. It is striking that our president has stronger words for Meryl Streep than for ex-Klansmen. Trump’s perpetuation of the deeply racist birther conspiracy theory ought to have itself been disqualifying, yet the party nevertheless heard him out on other issues salient to the party. Watching Trump question the impartiality of a judge on the basis of his ethnicity, Republicans failed to distance themselves from him as their party’s nominee. Sure, they may have issued a gratuitous tweet or press statement, but they didn’t withdraw their support. They did not raise the question of, “Does the man who David Duke thinks speak for him, also speak for me and for my party?” Or if they did, they didn’t answer with an affirmative “no.” And then they voted to defend the man who they held committed the textbook definition of racism.
Indeed, any condemnation of racism rings hollow when it doesn’t not confront fully the fact that our president ran his campaign claiming that Mexicans were rapists, alleging that immigrants were bringing crime, and seeking to impose a ban on Muslims’ entrance into the United States. Will Trump disavow unabashed xenophobes? Surely no. He is one himself. Will the Republicans in Congress disavow unabashed xenophobes? Surely not. Most of them voted for one for president, and in most cases they’re enabling his agenda.
Or how about President Trump’s embrace of Steve Bannon, whose ties to white supremacy, if not direct embrace of white supremacy, should have been an immediate red flag if not deal-breaker for Republicans throughout Congress. While President Trump’s Republican support pales in comparison to that of his predecessors, a number of his co-partisans recognize that working with this administration will be necessary to achieve common goals of tax reform to aid the wealthy and the decimation of health care (also to aid the wealthy). Toward this end, the Republicans have consistently overlooked the inconvenient truths of the Administration’s entrenchment in white nationalism.
Consider the vote for Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. The best way I can summarize the Sessions confirmation is, “Jeff Sessions: Too racist for 1986, but just racist enough for 2017.” This is a man whose history of racism is well-documented and precluded his successful confirmation as a judge in the 1980s – and who in recent years not only criticized consent decrees, but characterized the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” praising the Supreme Court’s deplorable gutting of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder. Indeed, Sessions had at one point jested that he thought the KKK were okay until he learned of their use of marijuana, and former colleagues had testified that he had used the n-word. And at a time of well-documented police brutality against people of color, this is an especially dangerous person to head the Department of Justice, for whom “justice” will apparently no longer be the operative word. Yet not a single Republican voted against him to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
It should come as little surprise that Republicans have hardly been on the front lines condemning Attorney General Sessions’s subsequent expansion of support for the private prison industry, with those incarcerated disproportionately minorities (and in many states, likely to have their voting rights stripped away, thus leaving them devoid of political remedies to fight back against such policies in subsequent elections).
Now let’s turn to the vote for Ben Carson, whose qualification for the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development could only be on the basis of his understanding “inner cities,” which appears to be President Trump’s euphemism for majority minority communities. Characterizing civil rights protections as “extra rights,” there was little doubt that Secretary Carson would fail to vigorously enforce civil rights in public housing, thus opening the door toward further discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation or identity. Consistent with expectations, as HUD Secretary, Carson “reinterpreted” an Obama-era housing rule that had aimed to combat housing discrimination by reducing segregation. There was not a single Republican who voted against his confirmation.
Consider the administration’s new war on affirmative action programs, which help to increase education opportunity for those from historically disadvantaged groups, but which some conservatives characterize as “reverse discrimination.” With education opportunity helping to increase economic opportunity, increasing access to quality, affordable education is imperative, and increasing diversity is a broad goal that the Supreme Court has affirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and again in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016), conditional upon those affirmative action programs consisting of a holistic admissions review and thus narrowly tailored as opposed to a more sweeping quota system as under Bakke. Needless to say, the incompetence of the current administration doesn’t leave one with the sense that the takeaway of 2017 is that white people are disadvantaged and plagued with “economic anxiety.” At a time when we are already seeing a re-segregation of American schools, such a stand against increasing diversity would roll back decades of progress in education and economic opportunity. And this condemnation of affirmative action has been a long-standing conservative talking point.
Or we can address the government’s commitment to Medicaid allocations, which deliver health care to the most vulnerable segments of American society, and with 1 in 5 Americans on Medicaid or CHIP. With considerable persisting health inequality, including along racial lines, delivering health coverage to the vulnerable is imperative in helping people to be productive in the workforce, and in turn boosting economic opportunity across racial lines. Studies have found that minorities would be deeply harmed by cuts to the government’s Medicaid allocations. And yet Republicans’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act was in no small part due to the proposed legislation not cutting health care enough.
And for everyone’s dream palate cleanser after that, there’s Stephen Miller, over whom rumors have circulated regarding a potential promotion into a communications position after his castigation of the ideals embraced by the Statute of Liberty and “The New Colossus.” But hey, we’re all probably just being too cosmopolitan in rejecting the notion that America has been, and should continue to a nation for whom diversity is an asset, not a liability, and shouldn’t be erased away through white supremacist groups seemingly be in bed with the presidential administration.
Or how about the voter ID legislation that is sweeping the nation in the aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder. Studies have shown that non-white Americans are less likely than white Americans to possess government-issued ID, and thus that such laws would have a disproportionate impact in suppressing minority voters. And yet Republicans have time and again been the party sponsoring for political gain these restrictive voting laws, many of which previously had been blocked due to preclearance requirements but which the Supreme Court has now given the green light. While state secretaries of state of both parties have challenged the massive amount of voter information solicited by the voter fraud commission led by Kris Kobach, too often Republicans have enabled if not encouraged restrictive voting legislation in the name of guarding against fraud (which incidentally doesn’t exist in any significant level) but with the ultimate effect of reinstating Jim Crow by another name.
And let's not forget the Republicans' acceptance as a colleague Congressman Steve King (IA-4), a man who keeps on his taxpayer-funded desk a Confederate flag and has more than his fair share of race-related controversies.
Even as Senator Flake rightly criticized his party for not ardently opposing the birther conspiracy, he and 50 of his fellow Republicans confirmed for a federal judgeship John Bush, who not only has been outspokenly misogynistic and homophobic, but actively spread the birther conspiracy. There are principled and qualified conservatives with whom John Bush could reasonably have been replaced as a nominee, but the Republican Party lined up in his defense, feigning offense at racism only afterward.
Opposing one’s own party is hardly an easy task, and I recognize that. But there are some moral imperatives, and standing for basic equality is one of them.
People don’t deserve points for grimacing while voting for, and continuing to empower, bigots. They deserve points for speaking out against them and then acting on that conviction. It’s like what we all learn as young children: actions speak louder than words.
Writing press statements and tweets condemning Nazis is easy. Walking away from a set of policies systematically disenfranchising and otherwise disadvantaging minorities is harder. But the Republicans need to do it if they want to be taken seriously in condemning white supremacy.