The farce of American racial rhetoric had not ended as a torturously hypocritical 2014 drew to a close.
Earlier in the year, somewhat unexpected public outrage flared up in response to the historically routine phenomenon of cops eluding prosecution for the murder of unarmed black men. Meanwhile, America’s most segregated political party — the GOP — solidified its grip on the U.S. Congress.
A Los Angeles billionaire had his prized toy — an NBA team — taken away after he expressed racial insecurities to his girlfriend. And the net worth of African-Americans and Hispanics continued to decline in relation to whites.
To sum it up, the racial sound and fury in the public square neared a crescendo, while on Capitol Hill the political means to actually change anything about racial and other kinds of inequality hit a 50- year low.
What media and politicians euphemistically call our “conversation about race” was more like a food fight in 2014, and it got a last dollop of empty-calorie energy with the revelation that 12 years ago Jefferson Parish Congressman Steve Scalise, then a state legislator, made himself available to a white supremacist group — David Duke’s European American Unity and Rights Organization.
I’m once again baffled by the big fuss over this kind of thing. My estimation of Scalise and his fellow Republicans isn’t changed one whit by the news. My own congressman, Cedric Richmond, a black Democrat, has assured the public that his white pal Scalise, the House majority whip, is not personally racist, and I believe him. The problem is that the personal racism of a public leader isn’t really the issue. To suppose that it is — that the real problems are not more deeply cultural and institutional — underscores the epic failure of today’s conversation about race.
Whether or not Scalise secretly harbors racial animosities, it’s impossible to believe that he didn’t know whom he was addressing at the Best Western in Kenner in 2002. As has been widely reported, the Iowa Cubs, in town to play the Zephyrs, knew well enough to cancel their reservations, simply to avoid being under the same roof as the “conference” at which Scalise was a featured speaker.
And given that Duke had held a Jefferson Parish House seat not long before him, how feasible is it that Scalise had no idea who the guy was and who his supporters were, as his defenders have tried to claim?
Indeed, as has also been widely reported, the year Scalise got elected to the state Legislature was also the year, 1995, that Gov. Mike Foster’s first gubernatorial campaign was nearly blown out of the water by revelations that he had paid Duke $150,000 for a list of key supporters.
Why would Republicans wish to court former Klansman Duke’s supporters, with direct mail or conference appearances? That’s the dumbest question of the 21st century, however much politicians might scratch their heads and pretend not to know the answer.
Republican pundits seem more alarmed than Republican politicians. While congress has circled the wagons around their majority whip, non-Southern conservatives have raced to distance themselves from the wellspring of voters who gave them their current political status. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin says Scalise’s appearance at the white supremacist EURO conference was “inexcusable.” But where else was he supposed to get the votes that would eventually earn him national GOP prominence? Connecticut?
The smartest Republican damage control strategy came from liberal writer Ezra Klein, who opined that “to win in Louisiana, Steve Scalise compromised with a racist political culture.” As a southern leftist, I take issue with Klein’s wording. Why do we need to locate the “racist political culture” in Louisiana, rather than in the “Louisiana GOP?” This is how, with a sigh, the anti-racist national left colludes with the national right: They’re all racist down South, so what can you do?
Without a doubt there’s a lingering racist political culture in the Deep South. But it’s easy to avoid: Don’t vote Republican. If you don’t like the Dems, form another party, but the Southern GOP is the direct legacy of Southern white supremacism, and to extricate it from that heritage would alienate enough voters to end GOP supremacy in Washington.
Zack Kopplin, son of Andy Kopplin, once Foster’s chief of staff and now Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top aide, has also written a piece, for Slate, excoriating Scalise’s 2002 campaign gaffe. Like Klein, Kopplin chooses to locate the problem mainly in Louisiana rather than in the GOP’s national or regional strategies, and, like many left-leaning pundits, he dwells on the persistent personal racism of many white, non-urban Louisiana residents.
He then lapses into the voyeuristic invocation of racist brutality so dear to mainstream anti-racist pundits on the left. On a Solomon Northup tour in Red River country, he reflects on the place where “hundreds of blacks had been enslaved, whipped, beaten, raped, had their families ripped apart, and been murdered.” He ends up concluding that “when it comes to race, Louisiana is nowhere near the 21st Century.”
Wrong. If in its most voter-rich districts the GOP relies so heavily on coded racist appeals, and if the GOP is, in the 21st Century, more powerful than they were in the second half of the 20th century, how is lingering racism somehow unique to Louisiana and not representative of the United States as a whole, or at least the South?
Are Louisiana Democrats also racist? Are parishes whose white as well as black voters consistently vote Democrat also racist? Are the majority of white voters in Orleans Parish, who voted for Barack Obama twice, also racist? Or is it just the conservative districts?
The often uncritical fetishization of Southern racism — as if it’s in the water — is less productive than pointing to the long history of anti-racist dissent and activism among white Southerners. While every generation apparently needs to discover for itself, as if for the first time, the history of Southern racism, the handful of brave exceptions to that tradition — like Huey and Earl Long in Louisiana, Alabama’s Governor “Big” Jim Folsom, and President Lyndon Johnson — are either forgotten, or mischaracterized to fit popular stereotypes that are far from the truth. The misrepresentation of Johnson in the just-released movie, “Selma,” is only the latest example.
When it comes to the racism of Steve Scalise, I agree with both Cedric Richmond — who says the congressman from Jefferson is not racist — and with David Duke, who says, correctly, that they basically agree on their “conservative” principles, just not on support for Israel. Duke also reminds us that he won 60 percent of the vote in his Jefferson Parish district, so why wouldn’t the candidate have wanted to speak to Duke’s constituents?
The Advocate’s Stephanie Grace summed up Scalise’s overall political strategy best in her paraphrase of the congressman’s own comments at the start of his meteoric rise to GOP heights — that he saw himself as “David Duke without the baggage.”
And this is the gist of the Republican Party’s dilemma today, trying to be David Duke “without the baggage.” We could excuse some Republicans by isolating the supposedly “racist” ones in the South — as misguided liberals do every day — but where would the national Republican Party be without the lion’s share of its constituency?
As for me, I have a great deal more respect for the racial honesty of David Duke’s supporters than I do for the disingenuous smoke and mirrors we see in the mainstream GOP’s post-racial platitudes. You can’t go to the well again and again and then claim the water’s toxic.
C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans studies at Loyola University.