Rick Perry discovers America.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans Wake Up to Racism

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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Campaigns, as political operatives and television pundits eagerly agree, are about the future. But as the recent bout of wrestling over the Civil War has made clear, they're also shaped by the past. Last week, former Texas Governor Rick Perry added a new perspective to the 2016 Republican presidential race -- by explicitly grappling with history.

Perry's address at the National Press Club about economic opportunity had a remarkable opening. He spent the first few paragraphs recounting the "unimaginable horror" of the 1916 lynching in Texas of 17-year-old Jesse Washington. Perry spared neither grisly details nor their significance: Washington was tortured to death, Perry said, "because he was black."

As Perry proceeded to discuss poverty and progress, race remained a central theme. "We cannot dismiss the historical legacy of slavery, nor its role in causing the problem of black poverty," Perry said. "And because slavery and segregation were sanctioned by government, there is a role for government policy in addressing their lasting effects."

Brian Beutler and Jonathan Chait have each analyzed the speech, from different angles, sizing up the conundrums Republicans confront: opposing the federal power that has been the sole guarantor of black rights, and seeking non-white votes while promoting policies that cut public investment, which enables the poor to rise, and while making the tax code a bonanza for the already wealthy, who are overwhelmingly white.

Perry's speech did not square that lumpy circle. But liberal cities have failed -- often flagrantly -- to provide opportunity to poor black residents. Perry noted that the rate of poverty among blacks is lower in Texas than in high-cost blue states. Black voters have consistently preferred Democrats' clumsy helping hand to Republican contempt. If Republicans could free themselves of disdain, the high bar on competing for black votes would begin to descend. Acknowledging real American history, the most vile along with the sublime, may be a necessary prerequisite to that task. 

Republicans don't talk much about lynchings. They rarely mention discrimination or racism. Research shows a Republican base both eager to deny that racism is a significant factor in American society and prone to "explicit anti-black attitudes." When blacks gained civil rights protection in 1964, after more than three centuries of brutalization, millions of white Americans concluded that whites were the true victims, abused by federal power. Those resentments have eased, but they endure.

Democrats have reached a general consensus on their party's recent past. The prosperity gospel of unionization, the glory of the civil rights fight, the violent buffoonery of the New Left, the post-McGovern wilderness, the return to power in 1992 following the ideological return to the mean.

When it comes to their history, Republicans are cafeteria conservatives, choosing whatever suits present appetites. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a former aide to President George W. Bush, wrote earlier this week on the electoral challenges that Republicans face in 2016 and beyond. He cited the Republican "Southern strategy," the decades-long process of stoking white resentment for electoral gain, and the racial "ugliness" beneath Donald Trump's xenophobic appeals, as if they are obvious facts requiring no explanation.

On the same day, the Wall Street Journal's William McGurn wrote a column that simply excised the Southern strategy from history. In McGurn's telling, segregationist Democrats fomented racism in the South, then circa 2015 Republicans rescued the South from Democratic confederate symbolism. The intervening decades exist outside space and time, floating untethered from Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms or the pitiful confessions of Lee Atwater.

In 2005, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, at a convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, apologized for his party. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," he said. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." The speech received scant attention. But it fit the posture of the George W. Bush administration, which made quiet progress on race.

Now, arguably for the first time, a concerted battle is being waged not in the White House or at an NAACP convention but in the heart of the Republican base -- the white South. Confederate flags coming down in Alabama and South Carolina, at conservative insistence, confirm that Republicans have neither a political death wish nor a void where their consciences should be. A tearful Republican legislator demanding that South Carolina banish its symbol of racial "hate," and winning the fight, is a watershed in American politics. (And yet, reactionaries in the House Republican Conference this week resorted to a rearguard action on the same flag.)

Perry's speech is best understood not as a disjointed defense of local government or conservative economic policies, but as another downward tug on white supremacy. If racism was as real and deep and vicious as Perry contended in his speech, and if it is important enough to be the stuff of Republican presidential campaigns, then it may have not only twisted the American past into ugly shapes previously ignored by conservative orthodoxy. It might still cast a grim shadow over the party and the nation. Perry acknowledged that government has a role in addressing that. That's a start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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