Last week, we saw pro-Nazi demonstrators carrying torches, chanting, “The Jews will not replace us.” We saw violent demonstrations resulting in mayhem, injuries and death. The president of the United States told us that there were “very fine people on both sides” and failed to condemn the alt-right individual who drove a car into peaceful protestors, killing one. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was fired. Last week was quite a week.
Trump’s reaction, especially his meltdown at the August 15 press conference, has led to numerous conservative business leaders and Republican politicians, including former President George W. Bush, House Speaker Paul Ryan and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to distance themselves from Trump.
But I’m not convinced that Republicans really have a problem with his message. It’s just the way it was delivered.
Trump is planning to have his Department of Justice’s civil rights division focus on investigating universities with affirmative action policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. I don’t remember any Republicans complaining about this since it was reported on August 1. Republicans have been successfully playing the white race card for years. They have just been doing it with a level of sophistication that our current Republican president does not possess.
In August 1980, in his first speech after winning the Republican nomination for president, the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan went to the Neshoba County Fair, not a major media market and seemingly an odd location for his first speech. But the Neshoba County Fair is seven miles from Philadelphia, Miss. In June of 1964, in Philadelphia, the county sheriff, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, released three young civil right activists from jail. They were then taken to an isolated spot and murdered. It later came out that members of the local Ku Klux Klan, the county sheriff’s office and the local police department were involved. The public outrage and horror of the Philadelphia murders helped lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Great Communicator chose this very spot to give an impassioned defense of states’ rights. “States’ rights,” since the Civil War, has been the code phrase for allowing states to deny blacks the right to vote. Giving this speech at this location offered implicit support for the racist policies and actions of white segregationists in the South. While Reagan’s speech was more subtle and nuanced than Trump’s press conference, I see a parallel racist theme underlying both.
Not much has changed since 1980. Texas Republicans did not need torches to implement voter suppression laws that restricted minority voting in 2015. And since 2006, 10 states have added laws requiring photo identification to vote. These laws restrict minority voting, and primarily benefit Republican candidates.
And then there’s the tried-and-true white race card: “law and order.” This has become code for imprisoning African Americans at an astounding rate. While all Americans should support real law and order, there is no true law and order when African Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned for drug use than whites, even though African Americans and whites use drugs in very similar percentages.
It is time for the Republicans to stop using the white race card. It is time to oppose not just the messenger, but also the message.