Pro-slavery comments from the audience drew unwanted attention to a breakout session at last week’s CPAC convention. The session was called, “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One”. Unfortunately, some attendees were racist and proud of it. Or, to put the matter more delicately, they were proud of “their demographic” and feared that once-dominant white folks are gradually being disenfranchised.
The Race Card session was the brain child of K. Carl Smith, an African American who calls himself a “Frederick Douglas Republican.” You may be familiar with Smith’s basic argument: Historically, proponents of slavery and Jim Crow segregation have been Southern Democrats, therefore Democrats are the real racists and Republicans are the champions of civil rights. Frederick Douglas, the great champion of abolition, was a proud Republican, K. Carl Smith points out, and that’s the brand of Republicanism he advocates.
The title of the workshop assumes that most Tea Party activists share Mr. Smith’s admiration for Frederick Douglas and the ideal of racial equality. This is a message Republican image makers would like to project. No one likes being associated with the evils of racism and, as a practical matter, moving even ten percent of the black electorate into the red column would be a political game changer. Dozens of prominent black conservatives have moved from virtual obscurity to national prominence by feeding the impression that political conservatives embrace the fundamental tenets of the civil rights movement and oppose “entitlements” only because they create a docile and dependent underclass while crippling the nation with debt.
There are doubtless plenty of conservative Americans who think this way, but as the neo-confederate comments from the audience make clear, a solid contingent within Tea Party America believes that America is fundamentally a white nation that simply tolerates a non-white minority.
The video clip shows an audience riddled with ideological ambivalence. K. Carl Smith told the audience that Frederick Douglas sent a letter to his former slave master forgiving him for his manifold sins. A young man asked if Douglas was forgiving the man for providing him with food and shelter.
You don’t hear a lot of hoots of approval or “amens” from the crowd; it’s mostly shocked “I can’t believe he really said that!” gasps and a lot of nervous laughter. But Scott Terry, the nice man behind the racist rhetoric, didn’t get much flack from the crowd either. His opinions may not have been standard, but neither were they beyond the pale.
How pervasive is white supremacist ideology within American conservatism? It’s hard to frame an objective answer to that question. The CPAC crowd is overwhelmingly white, but that in itself does not bespeak racism. My guess is that Scott Terry represents a fringe element even in Tea Party circles.
But a weak, polite, largely unexamined species of white supremacy pervades white culture. We see America as a white nation because that’s the perspective we grew up with. We don’t hate non-whites; we’re just more comfortable with our own brand. America is a nation created by white people, for white people. We don’t want to offend anyone, but that’s just the way things are.
People who share this white supremacy-lite sensibility do not see themselves as racists. But there’s a black man in the White House and it just doesn’t sit right; something’s wrong with this picture.
So you sign up for the Race Card workshop because, well, you are sick and tired of being called a racist when you aren’t one. And then the guy next to you gets up and launches into a defense of white supremacy using the rhetoric of the black power movement and you don’t know what to think. Part of you is uncomfortable with the affirmation of slavery; but when the guy says he is proud of being white and feels his demographic is being slighted and oppressed your head wants to nod in approval.
The cognitive dissonance comes out in the kind of nervous giggles you hear from the audience.
K. Carl Smith and Scott Terry had a little chat after the Race Card session ended in disarray. Here we have two nice guys who want to play for the same team.
Scott doesn’t hate K. Carl because he’s black, he just wants him to go back to the old Booker T. Washington “separate but equal” doctrine and that blessed era when Negroes had the good sense to keep their broad, flat noses out of politics.
K. Carl wishes Scott could see slavery through the eyes of a black man.
Both men believe that welfare (and Obamacare and Social Security and Medicaid) turn self-reliant Americans into dependent pawns. There’s some common ground there.
But a fog of unreality defines the scene. K. Carl Smith must ignore the scent of white resentment that hangs thick in the room; if he could smell it he’d be out of business. And the Republican Party can’t afford to confront, or even acknowledge, the weak and strong strains of white supremacy that are so apparent to outside observers. The GOP doesn’t want to be the Party of White; but confront white resentment head-on and the Republican brand would instantly self-destruct. Some problems must simply be denied . . . or at least deferred.