Media

GOP Silent on Race Trash Talk

William Bennett's oddball racist cracks will hurt Republicans' black-voter drive.
The reaction was swift and angry to former Reagan honcho William Bennett's oddball racist crack that aborting black babies could reduce crime. The problem though was that those who instantly denounced Bennett were all Democrats. Even as calls were made for an apology, or his firing from his syndicated national radio show, neither President Bush or any other top GOP leader said a mumbling word about Bennett. Eventually, the White House, forced to say something in the face of the storm, issued a weak, milquetoast statement that called Bennett's comments "inappropriate."

At first glance, the delay seemed especially strange since Bush, Republican National Chair Ken Mehlman and top Republican strategist Karl Rove, have barnstormed throughout the country wining and dining every black group that will give them a hearing, and have spent millions to back up their public pledge to make the Republican Party racially inclusive. That raised some hope that their much vaunted outreach effort might stop the crude race baiting that many Republicans had turned into a fine art.

Even the tout of segregation by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott that touched off a furor a few years back didn't totally smash that hope. Though it took nearly a week for Bush to make a stumbling, kind-of, sort-of disavowal of Lott, it was still a faint signal to Senate Republicans to dump Lott from his post.

But Bennett's' gaffe came on the heels of the shocking and heartbreaking scenes of thousands of poor blacks in New Orleans fleeing for their lives from Katrina's floodwaters. Blacks blamed Bush's catatonic response to the disaster on racism. Bush and the GOP have worked overtime since then to dispel any notion that the bungled response was racist, and Bush has even made a few bold declarations about attacking poverty and the racism that fuels much of it.

Bush's slight nod to race and poverty can't easily dispel the deep suspicion that racism still profoundly colors the GOP's racial thinking and policies. During the past decade, a parade of Republican state and local officials, conservative talk show jocks and even some Republican bigwigs have made foot-in-mouth racist cracks that have gotten them in racial hot water.

Their response when called on the carpet has always been the same: They make a duck and dodge denial, claim that they were misquoted or issue a weak, half-hearted apology. And each time, the response from top Republicans is either silence, or if the firestorm is great enough, giving the offender a much-delayed mild verbal hand slap.

But the bigger dilemma for Bush and the GOP when the Bennetts of their party pop off is that they remain prisoners of their party's racist past. A past in which Republican presidents set the tone with their own verbal race bashing. President Eisenhower never got out of the Old South habit of calling blacks "nigras."

In an infamous and well-documented outburst at a White House dinner party in 1954, Ike winked, nodded and whispered to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren that he understood why white Southerners wouldn't want to "see their sweet little girls required to sit in school alongside some big black buck."

President Nixon routinely peppered his talks with his confidants with derogatory quips about blacks. He enshrined in popular language racially tinged code words such as, "law and order, "permissive society," "welfare cheats," "crime in the streets," "subculture of violence," "subculture of poverty," "culturally deprived" and "lack of family values." And President Reagan once told a black reporter how he would treat black leaders, saying, "I said to hell with 'em."

In 1988, President Bush, Sr. made escaped black convict Willie Horton the poster boy for black crime and violence and turned the presidential campaign against his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis into a rout. He branded a bill by Senator Ted Kennedy to make it easier to bring employment discrimination suits a "quotas bill" and vetoed it. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Colin Powell called Reagan "insensitive" on racial issues, and tagged Bush's Horton stunt "a cheap shot."

The sentiment that underlay the casual, and sometimes blatant, racist trash talk of top Republicans, even Republican presidents, inevitably percolated down to the troops. If Bennett felt that he could say whatever he wanted about blacks and get away with it, it's because other Republicans have done the same, and there were no consequences for their vile remarks.

A defiant Bennett made it clear that he would stand by his comments. Even if he eventually backs off, or if other Republicans eventually denounce him, the damage from their initial silence has already been done.

While there are many Republicans who don't utter racist epithets, use racial code speak, or publicly denigrate minorities, and while there is no record that Bush has spoken ill racially, the fact that so many Republicans have slandered minorities, women and gays makes it a good bet that the next public official or personality hammered for a racist outburst will be a Republican. And it's also a good bet that no top Republican will immediately rush to condemn their GOP pal for it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).
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