Nothing spoils a party like a speaking engagement with a white supremacist group.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Five Reasons Scalise's Race Apology Won't Be the Last

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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You have to credit the White House for patience. With the holiday distractions receding, White House spokesman Josh Earnest finally pulled a razor from his shoe yesterday, dropping a few comments about Representative Steve Scalise's troubles, which were first reported on Dec. 28. Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, has apologized for having spoken in 2002 to a white supremacist group associated with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Earnest said that Scalise's staying power in the leadership reflected House Republicans' "priorities and values."

White supremacy isn't on most people's political radar. But as idiosyncratic as Scalise's case is, it won't be the last time that Republicans scurry for cover on racial politics. Hispanic governors and the occasional black member of Congress do represent Republican progress, but they're no cure for a problem rooted in a sizable faction of Republican voters. That's why Scalise may not be finished with his acts of contrition. And why future apologies are all but guaranteed.

1. White racial resentment is alive and well.

The election and reelection (it turns out that first one wasn’t a fluke) of a black president, and the impending demographic shifts to a nonwhite majority, which that presidency so powerfully foretells, has galvanized racial anxieties among conservatives. In a 2013 poll by Latino Decisions, 61 percent of white conservatives agreed that discrimination against whites would increase due to rising diversity.

Even the kind of racial progress that many take for granted -- the easy kind -- still encounters pockets of resistance. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 84 percent of whites (and 96 percent of blacks) supported black-white intermarriage. That's light years from the four percent of Americans who supported it in 1958, just before Obama's own parents married. But it also means that about 16 percent of whites aren't with the program -- and are even willing to admit in a poll. Regionally, support for interracial marriage was lowest in the Republican base, the South. 

2. Republicans are held to a different standard than Democrats.

Republicans complain of a double standard on race, aptly pointing out that the Reverend Al Sharpton's seedy past has not hampered his bid for respect in Democratic circles or tainted those who associate with him, including the president. Trouble is, Republicans profited too blatantly and too long from white racism, especially in the Deep South, to have anything but the most wobbly standing on the matter. History lingers.

3. Republicans who want to move forward get dragged back.

Many Republicans are eager to cut the ties that bind the party to white resentment. In 2005, then Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman publicly apologized for his party’s modern history of racial polarization. That same year, Mehlman's boss, President George W. Bush, installed his second black secretary of state. (The year before, Bush had been reelected with more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.)

Yet also in 2005, eight Republican Senators declined to sign onto an official Senate apology for the body's failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. The reluctant legislators included Trent Lott and Thad Cochran of Mississippi -- both contemporaries of Emmett Till, who was lynched in their state in 1955, at age 14. Lott’s recalcitrance was especially edifying. In a variation on Scalise's drama, Lott had lost his Senate leadership position in 2002 after having praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. Yet Lott -- and even Cochran, who was widely viewed as more racially sensitive -- apparently feared apologizing for some of the most ghastly acts in Mississippi history.  

4. Immigration politics is racial politics.

With Republicans continuing to oppose a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic, the party appears resigned to squeezing future electoral victories out of a shrinking pool of whites. Republican support for newfangled obstacles to voting, which disproportionately affect minorities, only reinforces the party's identity as anti-minority. Meanwhile, continued tensions over immigration provide a ready platform for impolitic racial remarks from the party's worst ambassadors (who often feel no need to apologize).   

5. Democrats enjoy the show. 

Democrats relish highlighting the racial backwaters in which some Republicans still fish for votes. As Politico reported yesterday: “Democrats, for their part, are working to craft a sustained attack against the Louisiana Republican, using Scalise’s continued role in the leadership to launch broadsides against dozens of rank-and-file GOP lawmakers.”

Scalise's transgression and apology, like Lott's before him, and like that of whichever contrite Republican surfaces next, is not decisive. But to the extent that such episodes expose Republicans seeking support in the precincts of raw resentment, Democrats are happy to go along for the ride -- all the way to the White House.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net