Last month, Sen. Rand Paul mentioned that which must not be named. “You go to a Republican event, and it’s all white people,” he said at a gathering at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He had earlier chided fellow Republicans, saying: “If we want to be a party of white people, we’re winning.” A few days ago, he added for good measure that Republicans have “gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” insulting African-Americans. Man. Good thing he’s not a Democrat.
I thought Paul’s candor would provoke an intra-party firestorm – with fellow Republicans either lambasting the accuracy of the “white people’s party” claim or berating him for poking at the elephant in the room that other Republicans ignore. Neither occurred – suggesting Paul’s statements were both true and untroubling. Think on that.
The North Carolina Republican Party holds impressive super-majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Though our state is 23 percent African-American, the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate have no black members.
So when they retire to craft our policies – repealing the Racial Justice Act, passing voting restrictions largely aimed at African-Americans, packing black voters into gerrymandered legislative districts, rejecting the paid-for Medicaid expansion, crushing unemployment compensation, limiting welfare benefits – no black member rises to address the issues. A white Republican governor and an all-white Cabinet round out the sweep. Some will say this is impolite to mention. Accurate, but impolite.
The racial lineup frequently triggers an appalling aesthetic. Dismissive white legislative and executive officials call Moral Monday protesters “morons” and “outside” agitators – evoking images of the desegregation era. State representatives treat “NAACP” as a tacitly assumed epithet rather than the historic champion of American promise it is.
Incumbent legislators run campaign commercials disparaging the Rev. William Barber – moving beyond “dog-whistle” to overt, racialized politics. It calls to mind the stunning 2012 Republican National Convention when a huge, almost entirely white sea of delegates listened to speaker after speaker denounce a young black president for “dividing the nation.”
But operating the N.C. Republican Party as a white persons’ assemblage violates more than notions of aesthetics. Given our foundational aspirations, given our history and struggle, and given the moving and inspired premises of our national undertaking, operating as a white people’s party in 2014 is both stunningly immoral and overtly dismissive of our defining constitutive societal purpose. It shames us as a people.
Imagine that under a strange, somehow enforceable, truth-in-labeling demand, our Republican Party were forced to rename itself the White People’s Party. Would a young, tech-driven libertarian explain: “I don’t like capital gains taxes, so I joined the White People’s Party”? Would an accomplished and respected investment banker declare: “I’m committed to the carried interest exception, so I vote for the White People’s Party”? Would a devout, patriotic evangelical forthrightly proclaim: “We need prayer in our classrooms, so I’m with the White Party”?
Of course not. Such justifications and protestations would immediately and conclusively be dismissed out of hand. No set of allegiances or commonalities would work to validate association with an overtly race-based political party. Admitted exclusion trumps the bartering of normal politics. It rejects the foundation of our polity.
But is the reach of moral responsibility so thin it can be escaped by the transparent tool of branding? Is it acceptable to operate as a white person’s party as long as you never admit it? Does the fact of exclusion fade before the disingenuous assertion of brotherhood? Can one, without blame, aid and abet the repudiation of equality? Is the labeling all that matters? Too much blood has been spilled, too many life chances crushed, to settle for pretense.
It can be comforting to assume the choices we face are less astounding than they are. In the months ahead, every Tar Heel will be forced to choose whether she will, eyes wide, re-embrace racial supremacy and exclusion. We are children of the American South. Our leaders may seek to ignore our history, but they can’t escape its shadow.
It makes no difference if the proponents of exclusion wear genial smiles and speak, oddly, of American values and Christian tenets. It has happened before. We all lose – not just African-Americans and other citizens of color – if we retreat to a white people’s politics. And we lose badly, perhaps irreparably. Who would have guessed we’d mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education this month by deciding whether to embrace or reject its inclusionary premise?
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He doesn’t speak for UNC.