07.06.09 5:55 AM ET
New GOP "Racist" Headache
After "Barack the Magic Negro" and other GOP racial gaffes, a top Young Republican official—who was elected chairman Saturday—laughs at a racial slur about President Obama. The Daily Beast's John Avlon on a choice facing GOP brass: Lose the radical fringe, or never email, use social media or send out holiday CDs again. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Note to Republicans: Racist “humor,” the Internet, and political ambitions don’t mix. Audra Shay, vice chairman of the Young Republicans and the leading candidate to be elected its chairman on Saturday, is now the latest in a growing list of GOP officials learning this lesson the hard way, based on pictures of a now-deleted Facebook page obtained by The Daily Beast.
“This is still America… freedom of speech and thought is still allowed… for now any ways… and the last time i checked I was a good ole southern boy… and if yur ass is black don’t let the sun set on it in a southern town…”
On Wednesday, Shay—a 38-year-old Army veteran, mother, and event planner from Louisiana who has been endorsed by her governor, Bobby Jindal—was holding court on her Facebook page, initiating a political conversation by posting that “WalMart just signed a death warrant” by “endorsing Obama’s healthcare plan.” At 1:52, a friend named listed as Eric S. Piker, but whose personal page says his actual name is Eric Pike, wrote “It’s the government making us commies… can’t even smoke in my damn car… whats next they going to issue toilet paper once a month… tell us how to wipe our asses…”
Two minutes later, Piker posted again saying “Obama Bin Lauden [sic] is the new terrorist… Muslim is on there side [sic]… need to take this country back from all of these mad coons… and illegals.”
Eight minutes after that, at 2:02, Shay weighed in on Piker’s comments: “You tell em Eric! lol.”
Shay now claims that she was only responding to Piker’s first comments, not having noticed the second. The eight-minute gap between the second post and her response strains the credibility of this defense.
It didn’t take long for other posters on Shay’s page to do the math. First, Derek Moss wrote “What’s disheartening is the use of the word 'coon' in 2009. Wow… I’m usually outnumbered about 500-to-1 on Audra’s threads so go ahead, lemme have it, I deserve it.” He apparently expected to be criticized as among this crowd for calling out the racist comment.
Cassie Wallender, a national committeewoman from the Washington Young Republican Federation, then wrote: “Someone please help a naïve Seattle girl out, is Eric’s comment a racial slur?” She answered her own question one minute later: “Okay, why is this okay? I just looked it up. ‘It comes from a term baracoons (a cage) where they used to place Africans who were waiting to be sent to America to be slaves.’ THIS IS NOT OKAY. And it's not funny.”
This was followed soon after by the chairman of the D.C. Young Republicans, Sean L. Conner, who wrote “I’m really saddened that you would support this type of racial language. ..wow! Thanks Cassie for standing up…”
Shay was silent on this exchange, but soon word started spreading throughout the Young Republican circuit, open to GOP members under 40. Significantly, Shay then “de-friended” Wallender and Conner—in the world of Facebook, that means cutting off relations—after calling her out, but kept Piker as a “friend” (subsequently, it appears their profiles are no longer linked).
“If Audra really did find these remarks to be 'outright disgusting,' then why was her response to immediately de-friend those who made statements against Eric's blatant racism?” Wallender wrote yesterday in a letter to the Young Republican National Committee. “I was blocked for stating that Eric's racist comment was "NOT OKAY. And it is not funny." Please take a moment look at the entire screenshot linked above, and ask yourself: which comment would lead you to de-friend someone, mine, or Eric's?”
In the face of the “coons” comment, Shay’s main concern seems to have been damage control. She deleted the controversial exchanges from her page (but not before screenshots were taken) and tried to tamp down the fire internally. Almost eight hours after Piker’s comments, and Shay’s ensuing “LOL”, Shay posted a Facebook status update stating that neither she—nor her Young Republican political slate—“condones the use of racial slurs on my wall…. It is not right to nor appropriate to talk that way and will not be accepted!”
At 10:31 p.m., a friend named Dale Lawson raised the P.C. defense, writing “the over reaction to it was a little amusing.” Then her friend Piker came roaring back: “I agree with dale… this is still America… freedom of speech and thought is still allowed… for now any ways… and the last time i checked I was a good ole southern boy… and if yur ass is black don’t let the sun set on it in a southern town…”
On Thursday morning, the leading black conservative site HipHopRepublican.com posted a story on the exchange. One of the site’s founders, Lenny McAllister, author of the upcoming Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative), quickly released a statement of condemnation, which provoked a flurry of emails from Shay supporters and ultimately Shay herself. “Throughout most of my interaction with Audra and some of her supporters over this issue, there was a strong defense of her actions,” McAllister told me. “Audra and I eventually got to a place where she apologized to me personally about the whole incident, but others have wondered if her public statement was an apology or merely political posturing.”
More than 36 hours after the comments were first posted, Shay released a statement condemning their “disgusting” content, which she said she was “not aware of” when she posted her response. She then spends the second half of her statement pointing a finger at the real culprits for the “web of misconception and untruths”: her political opponents at the Young Republicans. “It is a disgrace that these types of political attacks are taking place and once again, it proves that my opponents will stoop to the lowest levels to steal this election from the jaws of victory.” Shay did not respond to emails sent to her personal account requesting comment.
Taken by themselves, the exchanges on Shay’s page might be dismissed as an isolated ugly incident. But there’s a pattern emerging from the fringe of the GOP grassroots. Three weeks ago, former South Carolina State Election Director and Richland County GOP Chairman Rusty DePass “joked” on his Facebook page that first lady Michelle Obama was descended from a gorilla which had gone missing from a local zoo. Days later, Tennessee state legislative aide Sherri Goforth emailed out an image labeled “Historical Keepsake”—showing august portraits of all the presidents of the United States, ending with a pair of googly-eyes peering out from a black background to symbolize President Obama. When confronted, the aide to State Senator Diane Black said only that she regretted sending the image to the wrong email list and from her government address. She was “reprimanded” by her supervisors but not otherwise punished (a forced furlough at Memphis’s National Civil Rights Museum would have been an inspired penalty). And of course, all this has taken place after Chip Saltzman’s bid to be RNC Chairman was derailed by his decision to mail out a parody CD featuring the song “ Barack the Magic Negro.”
“It seems like some of us Republicans are taking our conservative message, mixing it with personal prejudices and racist views, and calling it patriotism,” says McAllister. “You can cover cyanide with chocolate, but you still can't call it candy.”
This pattern of racial remarks from grassroots Republican politicos highlights a real problem: As the party tacks right, it seems increasingly reluctant to challenge folks on its fringe for fear of offending the base—even, in this case, by failing to immediately rebuke racist supporters on a Facebook page. Let’s say that Shay’s “LOL” response was the online equivalent of nervous laughter, the kind of passive response to racist jokes that may have once been considered acceptable in pool halls and country clubs of the past. In the Internet era, it offers indelible evidence of acquiescing to something evil in our politics. There is a fear-based paralysis, a lack of moral clarity, which is in direct contradiction to their historic role as the Party of Lincoln.
This story is still unfolding. The election for chairman of the Young Republicans will be held this weekend at their national conference in Indianapolis and a new urgency is now infusing the vote. “I saw something that was morally wrong, and as a conservative I took it upon myself as an individual to stand up, and I do not regret it at all,” Wallender wrote in her letter to the committee. “I was attacked for wanting better for Young Republicans—in my lifetime of work for the Republican Party I have never been accused of being a "RINO," until now, by Audra's supporters.”
It will be interesting to hear what Governor Jindal and other influential supporters of Audra Shay’s candidacy will say about this incident. In a response to my request for a comment from RNC Chairman Michael Steele, his communications director Trevor Francis stated simply but firmly, “This type of language is inappropriate, and is not representative of the views of the Young Republicans.”
With their party at a crossroads in the wilderness, Young Republicans have an opportunity to send a message and set a direction this weekend. Will they embrace the ideals of the Party of Lincoln, and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic?” Or turn toward the self-segregating notes of “Barack the Magic Negro?”
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.