Republicans outsourcing work of explaining racism

  • Proud declaration: United States representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, is shown at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8, 2018 (Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

    Proud declaration: United States representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, is shown at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8, 2018 (Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

  • Eugene Scott

    Eugene Scott


It took a while, but Republicans have finally spoken out against Steve King’s offensive politics.

After The New York Times quoted the Iowa lawmaker asking why concepts such as white supremacy and white nationalism are offensive, leading GOP politicians denounced King’s language.

But no Republican has spoken out nearly as strongly as Tim Scott, of South Carolina, who is the only black Republican in the Senate. In an opinion piece, Scott wrote:

“Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism. It is because of our silence when things like this are said. Immigration is the perfect example, in which somehow our affection for the rule of law has become conflated with a perceived racism against brown and black people.”

Scott is right. Republicans are not battling accusations of racism solely because of comments such as King’s — or, for that matter, because of Donald Trump. It is also because Republican leaders spend more time defending their colleagues against charges of racism than they do speaking out on offensive comments.

Few members of the Republican Party speak as boldly and consistently about the dangers of systemic racism as Scott. In fact, when asked about King’s comments, the White House said Trump would not respond because he was too focused on the government shutdown.

When Trump appeared to sympathise with the white nationalists involved in the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally that led to the death of an anti-racism protester, it was Scott who visited Trump in an attempt to educate the President on the harms of white nationalism. And on more than one occasion, Scott has been one of the few Republicans refusing to back judicial nominees with controversial pasts involving racist ideas or actions.

The relative silence among most leading Republicans could mean a couple of things:

1, Many GOP lawmakers do not think racist rhetoric is worth addressing

Lawmakers usually pay attention to the issues they believe matter most to their constituents and donors. While most Americans said racism remained a big problem in the United States in a May 2018 survey, Republican lawmakers may not think their base cares about the issue.

2, Many GOP lawmakers are ignorant about how racist ideas affect black Americans on a daily basis

A common retort from the Right to black Americans who highlight the prevalence of racism is that these individuals are focused on the past. They argue that the best way to move past racism is to end conversations about America’s history with race. But that logic wrongly suggests that racial discrimination ended after the Civil War and fails to acknowledge the racial gaps that exist in the economy, housing, healthcare and other areas.

3, Many GOP leaders think racism is an issue best talked about by non-white people

The idea that it is the responsibility of the individual most at risk of being harmed by white supremacy to take the lead on damage control reinforces the idea that racism is primarily the purview of people of colour, and that white people have no role in cleaning up the mess made by white supremacy.

Despite conversations about King facing a primary candidate who is more racially sensitive than he is, he remains in office and likely will be an influencer in the party for a while. Some credit him with advocating for the tough immigration policies now articulated by Trump years before the President entered the Oval Office. Given that, his rhetoric and Trump’s will continue to be front and centre in the GOP.

The question for some is will other Republican lawmakers, who are not black, denounce these ideas as well as advocate for policies that show Americans that the Republican Party is for more than “old white men”.

Eugene Scott writes about identity politics for The Fix. He was previously a breaking news reporter at CNN Politics

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Published Jan 14, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Jan 14, 2019 at 7:25 am)

Republicans outsourcing work of explaining racism

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