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The GOP Plays the Race Card in Tennessee

October 30, 2006

In one of the least surprising developments of the 2006 mid-term election, the Republican National Committee is turning to the race card early and often. Nowhere is the GOP's race-baiting more prominent than in Tennessee, where an RNC ad titled "Call Me" depicts African-American Democrat Harold Ford as a Mandingo playboy debauching the white women of the South.
The RNC effort to help its candidate Bob Corker is no doubt designed to conjure up memories of Lily Belle in Neil Young's "Southern Man" for white voters in the Volunteer state. Even more certain, as I wrote back in September, is that the RNC ad is just the latest sign that racial bigotry is not the exception in the GOP, but perhaps the rule itself.
Reprinted in full below is "The Amazing Race Card."


There's an old saying that a gaffe is what results when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. By that standard, then, the Republican Party must be confessing its deeply held beliefs when it comes to race. After all, despicable racial slurs like Arnold Schwarzenegger's lecture on black and Latino blood and George Allen's MacacaGate are only the latest signs that racial bigotry is not the exception in the GOP, but perhaps the rule itself.
Bush League Racism
The rot starts at the top. During his disastrous 2005 road show to sell his Social Security privatization scheme, President Bush revealed his own not-so-subtle stereotypes about African-Americans. Pitching his plan to a black audience during a January 2005 town hall meeting, Bush reassured the African-American attendees, "Another interesting idea...is a personal savings account...which can't be used to bet on the lottery, or a dice game, or the track."
In George W. Bush's defense, it can be said that racism, like charity, begins at home. It was his father George H.W. Bush, after all, who famously referred to his Mexican-American grandchildren as "the little brown ones." And it was Dubya's mother Barbara Bush who unwittingly offered the American people a glimpse into her own views on race and class while visiting with Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston:

"Almost everyone I've talked to says we're going to move to Houston. What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

But for President Bush, casual bigotry is not merely a family affair. His closest advisors in the White House and the Republican Party seem more than comfortable trafficking in racial epithets. In his first week on the job, Fox News host turned White House Press Secretary Tony Snow reintroduced the slur "tar baby" back into the vernacular. Former Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft was a distinguished neo-con (in this case, Neo-Confederate). In 1998, Ashcroft granted a long interview to the Southern Partisan, in which he stated, "Your magazine helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
Like the President himself, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman similarly displayed a staggering lack of sensitivity and common sense while pandering to an African-American audience. During a July 2005 speech to the NAACP, he confused victim and villain in the dragging death of James Byrd, one of the worst hate crimes in recent history. Mehlman described Byrd as "a racist killer in east Texas, who the president brought to justice." Mehlman's error was sadly ironic, as it was Bush's bizarre, smirking comment about the Byrd case and hate crime legislation during his second debate with Al Gore in 2000 ("The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death!") that so unnerved so many American voters.
Capitol Hill GOP in Black and White
The racial insensitivity at the White House pales in comparison to current Republican practice in Congress. Ironically, some of the most skilled GOP race card players are among its leading hopefuls for the Party's 2008 presidential nomination.
That discussion begins but most certainly does not end with Virginia Senator George Allen. Allen's "macaca" slur directed at opposition Webb campaign volunteer S.R. Sidarth was the latest chapter in Allen's lifelong romance with the Confederacy and the ante bellum South. Allen, who in 2005 co-sponsored a resolution apologizing for the Senate's past use of the filibuster against anti-lynching legislation in the 1920's, displayed a Confederate flag and a noose at his home. During the 1996 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a smiling Allen appeared in a photograph with the leadership of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the White Citizens' Councils of the Jim Crow South. While governor of Virginia, Allen declared "Confederate Heritage Month" and branded the NAACP an "extremist group." Sadly for the son of the old football coach, his ham-handed attempt to atone for MacacaGate backfired with his campaign's transparently cynical "Ethnic Day."
Allen, of course, is not the only born-again Confederate among the GOP's Congressional ranks. Mississippi Senator Trent Lott was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression." Lott's tenure as Senate Majority Leader only came to an end after he crossed the line with his 2002 tribute to legendary segregationist Strom Thurmond:

"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Lott and Allen are not the Senate's only stewards of Confederate memorabilia and other symbols of bigotry. South Carolina freshman Republican GOP Jim Demint has been a staunch defender of the CSA flag, declaring during his 2004 campaign that "it should stay right where it is and I don't think the state legislature or governor should spend any more time on it." During his 1994 campaign, current Senate Majority leader Bill Frist found himself in hot water for an aide's concern over a visit to predominantly black Jackson, Tennessee, "We're getting deeper and deeper into the jungle here." And Montana Senator Conrad Burns, already facing a tough reelection fight, used a campaign event to belittle the immigration status of the "nice little Guatemalan man" who does work on the Burns' house.
Meanwhile in the House, Colorado Representative and 2008 GOP presidential aspirant Tom Tancredo has taken his anti-immigrant hard line directly to fringe hate groups. While most of the nation observed a solemn fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Tancredo used 9/11 to speak to the League of the South (LOS), a neo-Confederate hate group. (According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tancredo may have gotten more than he bargained for, as the close of his remarks were met by "several men in confederate-themed clothing [who] stood up and bellowed the first notes of 'Dixie,' the Confederate anthem.")
Not to be left out, Tramm Hudson, the GOP hopeful in Florida's 13th district, became just another Republican race baiter to run afoul of public opinion. During a recent campaign event, the former Alabaman Hudson declared "I know from experience, that blacks are not the greatest swimmers." Unlike Katherine Harris, whose seat he seeks to fill, Hudson at least realized "I said something stupid."
States of Disgrace
Back in the states, Republican race merchants are hard at work as well.
Just weeks after Tony Snow's "tar baby" disgrace, Massachusetts Governor and GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney offered up the same term to describe Boston's Big Dig project. In so doing, Romney found himself in good company with Missouri chief executive Matt Blunt, who in 2005 ordered the flag to be flown for a day during a memorial service attended at the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville.
Neither Romney nor Blunt, however, can compare to their Mississippi colleague Haley Barbour. The Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Republican National Committee Chairman wore a lapel pin with the image of the CSA flag during his campaign and attended a Council of Conservative Citizens barbeque in 2003. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Barbour referred to the overwhelmingly African-African looters in New Orleans as "subhuman."
The Republicans' truest practitioners of plantation politics may well in Georgia. As Perrspectives previously detailed, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature in March 2005 passed a voter identification law. Nominally aimed at countering voter fraud, the transparent aim of this virtual poll tax is to suppress the African-American vote - and Democratic prospects - in the state, especially in Atlanta. The bill's sponsor, Augusta Republican Sue Burmeister explained that when black voters in her black precincts "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls."
Clearly, today's Republicans have no claim to the mantle of the "Party of Lincoln." As Joe Klein described it, the race card in Karl Rove's hands is no accident, but key to the GOP strategy for the 2006 mid-term elections: "if things get really desperate, he will play the race card, as Republicans have ever since they sided against the civil rights movement in the 1960s."


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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