Cries of ‘racism’ poisoned our politics

“The president is, as he usually is or often is, disgusting and racist,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist from Vermont who has now twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination, lamented that the United States had a “racist president who attacks people because they are African Americans.” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries called President Trump the “xenophobe in chief.” Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said the president was “a racist” who has “polarized the races in this country.”

Except the last comment is not in reference to Trump. Waters was calling President George H.W. Bush a racist as she endorsed Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in 1992. After a colleague criticized the 41st president’s initial reluctance to sign into law what eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Waters told an audience at the National Press Club, “I would like to concur with that and say … very clearly that I believe George Bush is a racist. I believe he’s a racist for many, many reasons.” She added that Bush “is a mean-spirited man who has no care or concern about what happens to the African American community in this country.”

American politics is engulfed in racial passions. The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, has prompted a national reckoning with the way the government, especially law enforcement, interacts with racial minorities. This has extended into debates about race dating back to the American founding. But it has not all been limited to intellectual arguments.

Major cities have erupted into sometimes violent protests, complete with rioting, burning, and looting. People have shouted epithets and thrown objects at police officers, sometimes injuring them. Local authorities lost control of a few blocks of Seattle, the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” for 23 days. Not even the park outside the White House has been spared confrontations between mask-clad demonstrators and law enforcement.

As the police have stood down, amid calls for their departments to be dismantled or at least substantially “defunded,” we have witnessed an increase in violent crime in multiple cities. In a single weekend, 65 people were shot in New York City and 87 in Chicago. “Enough is enough,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, an African American Democratic woman, beseeched the city after an 8-year-old girl was murdered in the spate of violence. “You shot and killed a baby.” The Washington Post described “homicides climbing from Miami to Milwaukee.”

National symbols have also come under attack, far removed from monuments to the Confederacy. A statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass was toppled in Rochester, New York. In Washington, D.C., there were attempts to tear down statues of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. A World War II monument in Charlotte was defaced with a hammer and sickle. A monument to George Washington was hit with red spray paint in Baltimore. San Francisco protesters knocked over a statue of Ulysses S. Grant — the very general who defeated Robert E. Lee in the Civil War.

It is in many ways an ugly and turbulent time. Trump has been at the center of race-related controversies since before he took office, many of his own making. Yet Democrats have done their own substantial part to create this fraught political climate, having weaponized accusations of racism against conservatives and Republicans for decades, long predating Trump. We are now reaping the whirlwind.

Republicans now often favorably contrasted with Trump were not immune from the charge when they sought election. “He’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules — unchain Wall Street!” then-Vice President Joe Biden said of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, before telling the heavily black audience, “They’re going to put you all back in chains!” Romney recently marched with Black Lives Matter protesters. He and his father stormed out of the 1964 Republican National Convention when they found it insufficiently supportive of the civil rights movement. A spokesperson for then-President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign dismissed criticism of the line as “faux outrage.” Biden is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

A blog entry appeared at the time in the Washington Post claiming that “Romney attempted to appeal to what he perceives as latent xenophobia by pitting the black Democratic president against white-bread middle America and conventional Main Street.” It also referred to “Romney’s pandering to the ugliest portions of American xenophobia, no matter how many black and brown faces the GOP puts before television cameras,” a cover for “an environment” hospitable to “public racist behavior.”

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, compared John McCain and Sarah Palin to George Wallace while campaigning for Obama in 2008. “What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history,” he said. “Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.” To drive the point home, Lewis added, “George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.”

Even the Obama campaign largely disavowed these remarks, saying, “Sen. Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies.” But not all his surrogates were so constrained, despite the fact that McCain resisted attacks on Obama related to race, even arguably legitimate targets such as the Democratic nominee’s association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. “[McCain’s] supporters want him to use Wright against Obama, seeing it as the closest thing they have to a silver bullet in a difficult race,” Politico reported at the time. “But … he is already being accused of racism without ever mentioning the controversial pastor. One can only imagine the accusations that would rain down upon McCain should he extend his indictment of Obama’s judgment to the Democrat’s decision to sit in Wright’s pews.”

McCain famously rebuked a supporter for calling Obama an “Arab” at a town hall meeting. “No, ma’am,” the Arizona senator replied. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Teen Vogue called McCain’s response “patently Islamophobic.”

George W. Bush is now celebrated for thinly veiled criticism of Trump’s handling of racial issues and for friendliness in public with Michelle Obama. But during the 2000 presidential campaign, the NAACP launched a $2 million advertising campaign tying him to the lynching of a black man in Texas named James Byrd Jr., who was dragged behind a pickup truck. “On Nov. 7, let it be known we will not be dragged away from our future,” said the narrator, who was Byrd’s daughter. “Vote on Nov. 7. Please.”

Bush was under fire for failing as governor of Texas to sign hate crime legislation into law in response to Byrd’s murder. “It was like my father was killed all over again,” Byrd’s daughter said of Bush’s stance. But the perpetrators were all arrested and convicted under existing state law, with two sentenced to death and a third receiving life in prison. Bush received single-digit black support in November and continued to be dogged by racially charged controversies after the election. Democrats charged Republicans with voter suppression and said Bush’s victory, especially the razor-thin win in Florida that put him over the top in his tight race against Al Gore, was tainted by the disenfranchisement of disproportionately minority voters. The Congressional Black Caucus protested the certification of his Electoral College majority. Others boycotted his inauguration.

“I cannot in good conscience celebrate the inauguration of George W. Bush when in Florida, thousands of Americans were harassed, turned away, or otherwise disenfranchised in the November elections,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, in a statement. “This travesty of justice and democracy must never happen again, and to that end, I have pledged to make the case at every appropriate opportunity that we need election reform in this country, and we need it now!”

Bush faced accusations of racism and comparisons to Adolf Hitler throughout his eight years in office, though mostly from left-wing activists rather than Democratic elected officials. He was mocked from the pulpit at the funeral for Coretta Scott King. Yet during the controversy over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans’s black community especially hard, these criticisms went mainstream. “I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist,’” Bush later recalled. “I resent it, it’s not true. And it was one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency.”

“If you are a Republican nominee for president — or president — you will be accused of being a racist,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted last year. But it isn’t necessary to achieve that level of electoral success to be so described. The Tea Party was repeatedly characterized as a racist, white reaction to the election of a black president, despite Clinton inspiring similar opposition on the Right.

Rep. Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, told a predominantly black crowd that “some of them in Congress right now of this Tea Party movement would love to see you and me … hanging on a tree.” Carson added that they would like “to see us as second-class citizens,” likening it to “the effort that we’re seeing of Jim Crow.”

Obama never went quite so far, but he did say race was a driver of political hostility against his administration. “In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent ‘Tea Party’ movement that was then surging across the country,” Kenneth T. Walsh writes in his book Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House. Though he conceded that many “middle-class and working-class whites felt aggrieved and resentful” that the government was providing more help to bankers and automobile manufacturers than them, when a guest suggested “take back the country” Tea Partiers’ “real motivation was to stir up anger and anxiety at having a black president,” Walsh reports, “Obama didn’t dispute the idea.”

Opposition to white Democratic presidents did not absolve conservatives from charges of racism. On the eve of the 1994 midterm elections, which delivered the House to Republicans for the first time in 40 years, Rep. Charlie Rangel, a senior New York Democrat, said GOP politicians’ “black suits and ties” had replaced the Ku Klux Klan’s white cloaks and robes. “It’s not ‘spic’ and ‘n—–‘ anymore,” Rangel continued. “They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.'” Democrats used similar rhetoric in ads targeted at black voters as they sought to unseat the new Republican lawmakers later in the decade: “When you don’t vote, you let another church explode. When you don’t vote, you allow another cross to burn. … Vote smart. Vote Democratic for Congress and the U.S. Senate.”

The critique is now overtly extended to tens of millions of Republican voters. “Anyone who supported this president is, at best, looking the other way on racism,” asserted former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was campaigning at the time for the Democratic presidential nomination in South Carolina, where he once registered zero percent black support in a poll. Hillary Clinton memorably said, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. … The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”

A progressive viewpoint is that virtually all conservative politics since at least Barry Goldwater, one of only six Republicans in the Senate to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, captured the party’s presidential nomination that year is white reaction and resistance to minority gains in American society. The landslides for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, though they each won 49 states in their reelection campaigns, including California, New York, and Illinois, were said by Democrats to be the product of a tacitly racist “Southern strategy.” When California Gov. Pat Brown faced Reagan in the 1966 gubernatorial election, he reminded a group of schoolchildren that an actor shot Abraham Lincoln.

This view is no longer confined to partisan attacks or left-wing academic works. It pervades mainstream media coverage of GOP politics. “President Donald Trump is wielding America’s racial tensions as a reelection weapon, fiercely denouncing the racial justice movement on a near-daily basis with language stoking white resentment and aiming to drive his supporters to the polls,” reads the lede of an Associated Press article. “President Trump’s unyielding push to preserve Confederate symbols and the legacy of white domination, crystallized by his harsh denunciation of the racial justice movement Friday night at Mount Rushmore, has unnerved Republicans who have long enabled him but now fear losing power and forever associating their party with his racial animus,” begins a news story in the Washington Post, headlined “Trump’s push to amplify racism unnerves Republicans who have long enabled him.”

At any point over the last 50 years, however, liberals committed to this interpretation of American politics would have gladly substituted the names of any previous Republican president for Trump’s in making a similar indictment. Now, in a time of intense political polarization, combined with news cycles running at Twitter speed, the cumulative effect is as likely to cause such accusations to be tuned out as to discredit the accused.

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor.

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