I was raised in a family whose origins began in the southern United States, like many other African-American families. Like so many others, my family survived the pre-civil rights south. Some part of that survival took careful planning. Some of it was pure luck. I share that to help you understand why this week has been an emotional black hole for me, from the beginning of the racist attacks in Charlottesville to the time it has taken me to write these words. Each day the exhaustion is compounded by the battle over whether the appropriate sentiments of disgust and despair have been uttered by Donald Trump. It is an important question, but is it the only question we should focus on during this critical time?
While we focus on #Trump’s weak assessment of the attacks in Charlottesville, and an astounding double reversal of blame, which effectively supports white nationalists, there are other words I hear that speak louder to me than Trump’s. I still hold my uncles’ stories in my head, told with laughter, lived in pain. I remember the story of the uncle who crossed a pasture, running to avoid an angry bull, taking the dangerous run to get home before dark. He feared the sundown laws more than he feared the bull. I was too young to realize the absurdity of laughing that risking his life in that moment saved him from a worse fate. I remember the discussions about the stores my light-complexion mother could safely enter, while her darker-complexion brothers had to wait outside. I think about the legacy of Emmett Till and thank God that my uncles weren’t falsely accused of speaking to white women while they waited. As sad as their stories of terror and discrimination were, I realize that their stories could have been worse, told by my mother – remembering brothers no longer alive to share their own testimonies.
Shortly after the Charlottesville attacks began, the hashtag #ThisIsNotUS began trending. The hashtag is interesting in its effect as much as its viral status. The tag created a sense of open expression for those who believe that we are a better nation than the events on display in Charlottesville – when white pseudo-supremacists attacked a diverse group of Americans. The hashtag opened expression for persons of color whose lived experiences remind us that #ThisIsTheUsYouDidntKnowStillExisted, sadly. To a lesser extent than in the past? Certainly, but the virulent strains of racism which negatively affect the lives of people of color have only been modified in terms of degree of existence, barely modified in terms of degree of impact (more on that, another time). The hashtag has also opened expression for alt-right pseudo-supremacists to try to defend themselves against their heinous acts, and for conservatives trying to defend their party by distancing themselves from the pseudo-supremacists.`
Not that they would care, but I have my own list of #GOP heroes I have placed on #TheResistance honor roll. They are GOPers who routinely stand up to Trump without fear, and without hesitation. Some are individuals who are granted public forums to discuss their concerns, others are social media heroes. I am disheartened by the fact that not one of them seems to understand that the violence in Charlottesville is a problem because it is directly and indirectly indicative of what the #GOP has become over time, and not in the moments after Donald J. Trump took office. The #GOP’s decades long rhetoric about the poor and about minority groups was the powder keg. #Trump and his alt-right goons have only served as the proverbial lit match.
For decades the republican party traded progress for power. Wrapped in what the #GOP has claimed as “party policy” is a continuous stream of coded attacks against citizens of color devised to achieve the party’s end goals. Whether the codes were intentional or unintentional is irrelevant, given the outcome. Those attacks have created a sense of aggrievement in White Americans who were led to believe that “liberal policies” went too far in helping the poor and persons of color – often conflated as one in the same. The “unwarranted” support for the poor, and for minorities, robbed White voters and their communities of opportunity, the Republican party line implied, when not directly stated.
White-voter-aggrievement appears to have more to do with Republican rhetoric than liberal policy or liberal actions focused on minority communities:
Angry southern Democrats who felt betrayed by the party’s movement toward civil rights were taken in by the Republican party in the 1950s and on, most especially after the 1964 civil rights act. The #GOP has been playing to the racial resentment Southern Whites have felt since the act was passed, including failing to condemn Atwater’s southern strategy. The “Party of Lincoln” welcomed the fleeing Dixiecrats, trading the support of loyal African-American voters. What values and beliefs did the Republican party believe the Dixiecrats would bring to the fold? Which voters did they think the anti-integration politicians would bring with them?
Reagan and Dole are credited for openly standing up to the racist elements of their party and boldly stating that there is no room in the Republican party for bigots, for people who espouse values that are antithetical to American values. Dole, in particular, pointed to the exits during his convention speech and unequivocally asked racists to make use of them. They deserve credit for standing up. The bigger question is why the statements had to be made in the first place. What is it about the Republican party that causes the periodic need for tamping down openly divisive and hateful rhetoric from members of the party? What is it about Republican policy and ideology that continues to draw those individuals to it?
Remember that Reagan’s push back against racists is also countered against his “welfare queen” analogy. Who was she? ” She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”, according to Reagan, as he explained the need for welfare reform. She was racialized, of course. To the public, she was the African-American woman living multiple generations on welfare. She was unwilling (more than unable) to care for herself and the numerous children she continued creating – children raised without fathers in the household She was a burden on the hardworking tax paying citizens of this nation. On one hand, Reagan told the party to reject racism and open displays of hostility toward minorities. On the other hand?
Similar examples are available in every prior and successive Republican administration. Republican politicians continue to serve as grand marshals of the aggrievement parade by telling some new version of the welfare queen story, without adding the following:
- Most people who are impoverished are working – they are not collecting payments, sitting on their asses, happy to live their lives on welfare. They periodically need support to help their families survive tough economic times until they can land on their feet, again. Staying out of poverty is hard, but individuals who are impoverished keep fighting.
- Welfare does not make one “rich” by any comparative American standard. There is no incentive to stay impoverished.
- Persons of color are disproportionately poor, but are not the only poor who receive welfare benefits. Many of the aggrieved have most likely received support, or live in places with relatively few minority status individuals, and still have high levels of need and support.
- People living in those “liberal places” that support “liberal policies”, such as those living on the east and west coasts, are also strong contributors in terms of paid tax dollars. They often pay more in taxes than they receive by way of federal services and support. Those who attack liberal policies and programs often live in places that receive more in federal support than they pay in taxes.
Can you be against the notion of welfare without being racist? Sure. I have yet to hear anti-welfare rhetoric that is not also racist, stereotypic, and just plain hateful.
How else have Republicans traditionally contributed to rhetoric meant to amass votes, despite the likely outcome of heightening division?
Trending job loss in fields such as coal mining were tied to liberal policies favoring “the other”, as well as extreme liberal environmentalism. Instead of acknowledging the role of automation meant to increase productivity and profit, liberals – who were heavily focused on minority communities, were to blame. Instead of acknowledging the reduced need for coal because of more efficient resources such as natural gas, liberals were to blame.
Books such as “Hillbilly Elegy” were embraced by the media as helping all of America understand the plight of White American Trump voters, whose woes were economic (by implication) and not racial. I believe that the author J.D. Vance is honest in his assessment. I believe that commentators such as Krystal Ball and politicians such as Bernie Sanders, believe this. The wholesale dismissal of the role of race, however, is something I find deeply troubling. Individuals in those regions of the country lost coal producing, and other manufacturing jobs, for the reasons identified above, among others, and because they had them in the first place – something no one points out when the attacks on liberals, liberal policies and “the other” begins.
Were more minorities hired in those positions they, too, would experience high degrees of unemployment in those same regions of the country. Republican politicians routinely imply that White voters were intentionally left behind by liberals who only cared about identity politics. Political pundits and some progressive politicians have claimed the same. It is odd that these same voters are represented by red state politicians who failed to see the tide turning, and failed to help create other employment opportunities. Instead, Republican pols have used identity politics, as well, in coded, implicit, and often racist ways.
Minority status individuals are often disproportionately represented in under- and unemployed communities and they were not, largely, charmed by #Trump’s rhetoric. They were not largely chanting “Build that Wall”, or engaging in racist/sexist chants during political rallies. Trump’s appeal is not primarily economic, in my opinion, given the average income of Trump supporters and the economic diversity in his alt-right crowds. It is a point that I don’t believe was lost on the #GOP and the #RNC in the race to trade progress for power.
This group is aggrieved and feeling as if they are under attack because they have been told by the republican officials who represent them that they SHOULD feel aggrieved and that they ARE under attack, by liberals, liberal policies, by minority communities who are coming to take what is theirs – no other explanation needed as the truth is not politically expedient.
Other moves in the republican trade of progress for power? Most are self-explanatory:
Republican officials who promoted racist, stereotypic, policy suggestions that would have done little to reduce the effects of poverty on minority households. Who could forget Newt Gingrich’s proposal that janitors in schools be fired and that poor teens take their places in cleaning schools?
“This is something that no liberal wants to deal with,” Gingrich said. “Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. ..
Note that he referenced “neighborhoods” and not “rural communities”. I guess internships with local businesses and jobs that would allow teens to save for college would have been a bit much for the kids in those “neighborhoods”. Kill the wage-protecting unions and place teens in those positions. (Not)Brilliant?
Republicans failed to stand up to racist attacks against President Barack Obama. They didn’t stand up to the noose-hangers, the birthers, those who led the birthers, the racist joke tellers, and a host of others who were either voters or elected Republican officials who demeaned President Obama for eight years, using an obviously racist lie. The aggrieved lived eight years believing that an interloper had taken control of the federal government and created policies and programs that disadvantaged them… such as Obamacare. Their elected pols neglected to tell them that Obamacare also benefits rural (largely White) communities, the same communities that are now finding it difficult to continue without Obamacare.
Romney sought support from the chief birther, Donald Trump, semi-legitimizing Trump, despite his obvious racist birther movement. The party should have cut ties with Romney when that happened.
Birtherism is not the only racist language Republicans are comfortable using. Who can forget the “Plantation talk” which permeates the party, even recently in the Osoff-Handel race? The notion of being on a voter plantation apparently does not extend to White voters who reliably vote republican each year – even in the reddest red states where education attainment is low, on average, incomes are low, health care outcomes are dismal, and teen pregnancy rates are high. If there is a plantation that should be avoided… Well…
Trump entering the race referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists, murders, and drug dealers, despite the fact that the data tells us just the opposite – that crime rates are below the national average in immigrant communities. Instead of cutting him off at the knees, Republican politicians traded progress for power, indulging him, complimenting him, hoping to curry favor with his largely uncritical voting base… until it was too late and they realized that he would become their nominee. Never let it be said that the Republican party learns from its mistakes. They doubled down their support during the general election, despite Trump courting the “frog-loving alt-right” and his increasingly erratic behavior.
Paul Ryan recently promoted “building that wall”, while on horseback at the border. The man who once said that Trump’s language was indeed racist, joined him in advocating building a wall against people who have done little to harm us. The Wall is Trump’s signature promise based on a false racist claim. Well done, Speaker Ryan. Another epic failure.
I am disheartened when I hear Republicans champion their party and its heroes as anti-racist, and fault Trump for everything that is happening now. Why? For me, it is the surest sign of a party that is unable and/or unwilling to change. It is a party looking for a scapegoat and #Trump is as good as any, for now. For people of color, it is a temporary reprieve, since we are usually the party’s scapegoat. As stated earlier, Trump is the lit match but that match would burn itself out, if not for the powder keg the Republican party provided. This was a partnership, an ugly, hurtful partnership – a long time in the making.
Will Charlottesville bring about a real change in the Republican party? I would like to think so, but for now, I doubt it.