Past Present

The Accidental Truth in the RNC’s Latest Race Gaffe

A tweet about Rosa Parks ‘ending racism’ reveals a shameful truth about the GOP: Equality has never been the party’s fight and likely never will be.

Yeah, it was probably a junior social-media staffer who threw up that Twitter post about Rosa Parks “ending racism” in 1955. And it was just a little slip.

But it’s a story because it reveals two painful and quite shameful truths about the GOP, in this year of the “autopsy” that wasn’t, this year when the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority essentially made racially discriminatory gerrymandering legal again after nearly 50 years, and when Republican state parties all over the country are redoubling their efforts to make it as difficult as possible for black people to cast a vote.

The first truth is that this staffer, whoever it was, in all likelihood made this slip for a reason. She or he has been schooled to believe that racism did end, and that all present-day discussion of the problem is just whining from society’s takers. We might call this a central tenet of the right, although the word tenet dignifies it too much. It’s more like a fact-free conviction, held by people who are never capable of imagining walking a hundred yards, let alone a mile, in another person’s shoes.

Whoever this tweeter was, s/he has been hearing the refrain since the day s/he got into the game. Yes, there was racism, and it was wrong. But racism, she’d have been tutored to believe, was a Democratic problem (check that; a Democrat problem, her tutors would undoubtedly have said). She’d have heard all about how it was really Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen who passed the civil-rights bill (which is like saying the Serbs defeated the Nazis—they were on the right side, but they hardly carried the heavy artillery). She’d have been instructed to repeat “Party of Lincoln!” at the necessary intervals, and she’d have been coached in the phony, euphemistic language that Republicans use to acknowledge certain past sins but to press forward, sunnily noting that all of that is “behind us.”

Her Kinsley gaffe would thus have been fed, in others words, by a wholly propagandistic and cynical view of historical fact, an interpretation forged not to honor the sacrifices made and the blood spilled in order to reach for equality in this country, but concocted largely to have something quick to say to middle America that doesn’t sound offensive before changing the subject.

I find this point interesting, and not often enough made: Beyond half-heartedly invoking Dirksen and a few other spongy talking points, Republicans have no story of how America finally combated—didn’t “end,” but finally stood up to fight against—racism. This is unusual in our politics. Republicans and conservatives have an explanation, say, of how we got out of the Depression, or of how the middle class was created in America, or how the Soviet Union collapsed. Their explanations in each case are facile and incorrect, but it can’t be denied that they exist. But as to racism in America, its past and its present, they really have no explanation; nothing to say.

Their narrative holds that it somehow magically ended—perhaps not in 1955, as our tweeter suggested, but certainly in the 1970s. It has to have been the ’70s, you see; otherwise there exists in retrospect no justification for the great Reagan, who opposed affirmative action and sought federal tax exemptions for Bob Jones University, which at the time of Reagan’s order prohibited interracial dating (1982!). According to his biographer Lou Cannon, he did not even know that Christian universities like Bob Jones practiced racial discrimination.

They have no story for it because, Dirksen aside, they know it wasn’t their fight. Everyone was for getting out of the Depression and building the middle class and winning the Cold War, so both sides have stories to tell about how those things happened, competing for the public imagination. But Republicans have nothing to say about racism, except that it ended (a rather convenient conclusion for them!). So it’s only natural that this tweet came out the way it did.

It’s all gotten worse, far worse, more demented, in the age of Obama. Now, they use the existence of a black president to justify their belief that racism has ended, even while they despise him and mock him in plainly racial terms (the food-stamp president, all those numerous local GOP officials forced to apologize for sending racist Obama jokes out to their email lists). So racism is over even as they continue to carry it in their hearts and spread its toxins across the cybersphere. Nice work if you can get it.

Which brings us to the second truth, about the aforementioned autopsy. Reince Priebus fooled a lot of people by saying after the election that the GOP would change its stripes on race, that the fact that Mitt Romney got just 6 percent of the black vote was something the GOP could and should improve upon. But now, 10 or so months after the commencement of this autopsy, it’s clear that most in his party, elected officials and base, think Romney getting 6 percent of the black vote reflects nothing so much as black people’s racism! Right. So a 52-year-old black voter who has voted for seven white presidential candidates and finally one black one is a racist. Gotcha.

It’s amazing that it’s been six decades since Rosa Parks did what she did, and there hasn’t been one prominent national Republican leader who has said simply: “We were wrong. We, the white people of the South, the evangelicals, George Wallace’s famous beauticians and firemen, the beating heart of today’s GOP—we were wrong.” I’d like to see that tweet come out of the RNC, but I’m not holding my breath.

And if by some miracle it were issued, we can be sure the conservative base would demand an apology for the apology and that most elected Republicans would scurry to do the same.