More Republican Trash Talk on Race

When President Bush swore to make the Republican Party racially inclusive, there was no delusion that conservative Republicans would soften their granite-like belief in a hawkish foreign policy, corporate tax giveaways, and opposition to abortion, gay rights, and gun control. But there was hope that Bush's pronouncement would stop the crude race baiting that many Republicans had turned into a fine art. Even the tout by Senate Majority leader designate Trent Lott of segregation that touched off a firestorm of rage didn't totally smash that hope. It took nearly a week for Bush to make a stumbling, kind-of, sort of disavowal of Lott. But it was still a faint signal to Senate Republicans to dump Lott from his post.

For a time, Bush's tepid effort to push the Republican Party toward better racial behavior appeared to pay some dividends. In some polls, an increasing number of blacks actually had a kind word or two to say about him.

But in the short span of a few weeks, the slender hope of a Republican racial epiphany has been blown to bits. In Rochester, New York, a leading talk show host and an influential Republican compared the city's black Democratic mayor to a monkey. Next, Massachusetts's senator and top Democratic presidential contender, John Kerry accused a college Republican group of selling racist T-shirts. In between the pounding wannabe California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took for allegedly groping, harassing and sexually mauling parades of women, a couple of his former black bodybuilding pals claimed that he routinely used the "N" word, and that he denounced black majority rule in South Africa.

Then there was conservative Republican talk guru Rush Limbaugh's bonehead, cheap grab-at-ratings racist tirade against black pro football players. That got him canned from ESPN. But far more troubling than the allegations and the Neanderthal racist trash talk, was the mute silence of top Republicans. Neither Bush nor any other Republican leader called on Schwarzenegger to say whether the charge that he used racist epithets was true or not, or demanded that ESPN fire Limbaugh. They were also stone silent when a slew of other Republican Congressional and state Republican officials made racially insensitive remarks in the months before the accusations against Schwarzenegger and Limbaugh's outburst.

It's not just small fry Republicans such as the talk radio guy or Limbaugh, who holds no official post in the party, who have shown a penchant for making foot-in-the mouth racist cracks, and racially loaded attacks. Prominent 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 said, "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. California Black Republican Shannon Reeves complained that as a Bush delegate at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, even though he wore his delegate's badge and a Republican National Committee lapel pin, he was repeatedly stopped by white delegates and ordered to fetch them a taxi or carry their luggage.

Reeves account, of course, is anecdotal, and there are many Republicans who don't utter racist epithets, use racial code speak, or publicly denigrate minorities, and there is no record that Bush has spoken ill racially. But so many Republicans have. That makes it a good bet that the next public official or personality called on the carpet for a racist outburst will be a Republican. And it's also a good bet that no other top Republican will denounce the outburst.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist.

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