In much the way one used to savor the sight of some lying schmuck be game-set-match cornered by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, I love watching conservatives try to explain away race scandals. Like the be-Wallaced lying schmuck, they know deep down they’ve had it. But quite unlike the schmuck, and this is the fun part, they never run up the white flag; indeed quite the opposite. They go on the attack, and it’s just a comical and pathetic thing to see.
Before we get to all that, permit me a brief reflection on this matter of Steve Scalise. Let’s allow him the error in judgment, or whatever tripe it is he’s peddling, of speaking to a David Duke-related white supremacist group in 2002. It’s hard to believe, but let’s go ahead and be generous about it.
I think we should find it a little harder, though, to be generous about his vote as a state legislator in 2004 against a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the state of Louisiana. His was one of six votes against the day, which received 90 votes in the affirmative. And in case you think he may have rushed to the floor from the bathroom and accidentally hit the wrong button, he had cast the same ‘no’ vote in 1999. No error in judgment explains that. He was part of an extreme, racialized white faction in the Louisiana state house that was clearly dead-set against honoring King. (In which goal he is hardly outside the Southern mainstream; some states in Dixie still sometimes celebrate King on the same day they honor Robert E. Lee.)
So it’s hardly shocking that Scalise spoke to the group. Indeed it would have been more shocking if he hadn’t. This is a state, after all, where Duke, in his statewide race for governor in 1991, received a majority of the white vote. In fact, a large majority, of 55 percent, meaning that even though Edwin Edwards walloped Duke by 23 points, a near-landslide percentage of white Louisianans voted to make an avowed white supremacist their governor. Yeah, it was a long time ago. But how different would things have been 11 years later, when Scalise attended the Duke event? By attending, he wasn’t doing anything that would have been seen as controversial by most of his white constituents; indeed most of them would have endorsed it.
Some of the defenses of Scalise have been amusing and have followed the expected pattern, like redstate.org finding a black Democratic Bayou pol to avow that Scalise didn’t have—you guessed it—“a racist bone in his body.” But the fun starts when conservatives stop playing defense and go on offense. Here are the three main tropes, which apply not only in this situation but every time we’re met with one of these revelations.
1. But Al Sharpton is the real racist!
Nobody has to lecture me about how Sharpton has played racial politics in New York. I wrote some harsh columns about him back in the day, having to do with the way he played ball in New York City mayoral politics, especially in the 2001 election. But to call him or any black man “the real racist” is to evince complete, and I’d say willed, stupidity about what racism is. Racism isn’t just a person’s feelings and attitudes (and I don’t think Sharpton is “a racist” even by that definition); it is, more importantly, a set of power relationships, legal and economic, that kept and to some extent still keeps one group of people (and they aren’t white) from enjoying the full promise of American life. That’s what racism is, and Al Sharpton just ain’t its practitioner.
2. But hey, we elected Tim Scott.
Right. You did (he’s the African-American conservative Senator from South Carolina). And J.C. Watts back in the 1990s. And there was Allen West. And now’s there’s Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas. Bravo. That’s five. Congratulations! Meanwhile, white liberals have helped elect dozens of blacks to high office—mayors, members of Congress, a few senators and governors, and now a president.
This is supposed to “prove” that conservatives aren’t racist, and I would readily agree that on an individual level, most probably are not, and they’re willing to vote for a black candidate provided he or she has the proper right-wing views. Fine. Elect 20 more and then you’ll start to have a case. But they won’t elect 20 more, for many years anyway, because 1) the conservative agenda appeals only to about five percent of African Americans, and rightly so, since it stands in opposition to virtually every policy change that has improved black life in this country over the past 50 years, and 2) the Republican Party puts very little effort into recruiting black candidates and adherents, something the Democratic Party has been doing—at no small electoral cost to itself, by the way, but because it was the right thing to do—for 40 or 50 years.
3. B-b-but Robert Byrd!
Ah, my favorite of them all. Amazing how people can still haul this one out with a straight face. Yes, Byrd—dead four-and-a-half years now—was a Kleagle in the Ku Klux Klan. And his last known affiliation with the Klan was almost 70 years ago, in 1946. And yes, he voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964. But as everyone knows, he went on to say—not once but many times—that that was the greatest error of his career by far. As long ago as the early 1970s, he had gone on to support most civil rights-related legislation. He endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 in May, when Hillary Clinton was still technically in the race and just after Clinton had walloped Obama in the West Virginia primary. Byrd could very easily have gotten away with endorsing Clinton, justifying it as the overwhelmingly clear will of the people he represented. But what he did was reasonably brave and freighted with all the symbolism of which he was well aware.
And saliently for present purposes, and in contrast to Scalise, here’s what Byrd had to say about a national King holiday back in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was still opposing it: “I'm the only one who must vote for this bill.” The only one. There’s no missing what he meant by that. And the italics were his, not mine.
I suspect that somewhere down there in the Freudian precincts of their minds, the Byrd-invokers from Limbaugh on down know this, and it’s what they hate about Byrd most of all: The very sincerity of his repentance makes him a capitulator to the liberal elite and a traitor to his race. But they can’t say that in polite company, so they keep whipping a horse that’s been dead for at least 40 years.
And they’ll probably whip it for another 40, unless demographics overwhelm them sometime between now and then, but they’ll resist that as long as they can too. There’ll be more Steve Scalises, and every time, the right-wing orchestra will strike up the same weary tune.