Talking about racism proves thorny for GOP candidates of color

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina opened his presidential bid with a story of the nation’s bitter racist past. It is the one he often recounts, that of a grandfather forced to leave school in the third year to pick cotton in the Jim Crow South.

A rival for the Republican nomination, Nikki Haley, talks about the loneliness and isolation of growing up in small town South Carolina as the child of immigrants and part of the only Indian family around. Conservative commentator and longtime presidential candidate Larry Elder speaks to an all-white audience about his father, a Pullman porter in the segregated south, who carried canned fish and crackers in his pockets “because he didn’t never knew if he would be able to take a meal.

These biographical details are helpful reminders of how far GOP candidates of color have come to the pinnacle of national politics, a run for the presidency. But bolstering their own startup biographies with stories of discrimination, they have advanced views on race that sometimes seem at odds with their view of the country — often denying the existence of a system of racism in America while describing situations that look like it.

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‘I am living proof that America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression,’ Scott says in new campaign ad aired in Iowa, though he spoke of forced illiteracy of his grandfather and his own experiences of being arrested by the police. seven times in one year “for driving a new car”.

Conflicting views on the role race plays in America are a major theme in the 2024 election, underpinning cultural battles over “waking up.”

Yet behind the debate over structural racism — a codified agenda of segregation and subjugation that has long suppressed the achievements of minorities and, according to many scholars, left people of color still struggling — lurks a secondary debate. about the meaning of the stories politicians tell about themselves.

It made the discussion of race in this presidential primary awkward but also revealing at times, and underscored a central difference between the two parties. Republican candidates of color don’t see their past in their present, even as the two frontrunners in the Republican nomination race, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, elevate racial grievances to the center of conservative politics, overtly or covertly. appeals to white anger.

“I know Nikki and Tim — both are brilliant — but for them to not be able to make the logical leap is troubling: Systemic racism is the problem,” said Bakari Sellers, a Democratic political commentator who served with Scott and Haley in the South. Carolina legislature. “For them to tell their own experiences but turn a blind eye to the big picture is unsettling.”

Elder, at an April gathering of evangelical Christians in West Des Moines, Iowa, spoke of his father, porter Pullman who later became a cook in a separate Marine Corps unit. Upon his return from World War II, his father found he could not find work in the whites-only restaurants of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and had difficulty finding work in Los Angeles because he was unable to find work. had no reference from Tennessee.

Elder’s dad even asked to cook for free at restaurants in Los Angeles, just to get referrals, and again was turned down. He ended up with two jobs scrubbing toilets.

“There was something called slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow — that was codified,” Elder said in an interview. “Of course there was systemic racism.”

But now?

No, he replied, recalling the election and re-election of a black president, Barack Obama.

In the early years of the Obama presidency, talk of a post-racial society – where skin color has no bearing on stature or success – was common. But later, an upsurge in white supremacist violence, including the 2015 massacre of black parishioners at a Charleston church during Obama’s second term, as well as the 2020 killing of George Floyd, shattered that post-war notion. idealized racialism for many people of color of all political persuasions.

“That’s part of the problem with Scott and Haley saying there’s no racism,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory College and author of a book on Obama’s symbolism as president. black. “You could have argued in 2006 and 2007 that racism was on the decline. It is much less believable today.

Candidates of color aren’t the only ones relying on bootstrap bios to boost their appeal. Stories of struggle, poor childhoods, working-class roots or ethnic identity are must-haves for candidates of both parties, from Abraham Lincoln to Joe Biden to DeSantis and his “metalworker family”. But stories of racism and discrimination lend political biographies an additional element of authenticity. Scott’s family story — “cotton to Congress” — was the subject of his first campaign ad, unveiled last week.

For Republican candidates of color, whose audiences are often almost entirely white, there’s another factor, strategists say: Placing racism safely in the past and trumpeting racial progress in their own lifetimes relieves GOP voters. today to have to face any racial animosity in their party. This can be a calming message for Republicans who feel defensive about the party’s racial makeup and policies.

“They’re saying this to make a predominantly white Republican audience feel better about themselves,” said Stuart Stevens, a former Republican consultant who mentored the party’s 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It is a variant, curiously, of the politics of victims. People accuse you of being racist? ‘It is unfair. Vote for me, so you’ll prove you’re not racist.

Under Trump, the Republican Party has welcomed white nationalists into its ranks and embraced once-taboo ideas like replacement theory.

A spokesperson for the Haley campaign, Chaney Denton, said: “In Nikki Haley’s experience, America is not a racist country, and she is proud to say so. It is a fact, not a strategy. She added that “the only people who seem bothered by this” are the “liberal race baiters”.

At a Wednesday morning event sponsored by the Axios news site, Scott was pressed to describe the racism he had recently experienced, to which he had a ready-made answer: being stopped by police more than 20 times for “driving while he was black”, what he says “weighs heavily on the shoulders”.

“You end up in a position where you’ve done nothing wrong, but you’re presumed guilty before you’re cleared,” Scott said Wednesday. But he added: “Racism is rooted in the hearts of individuals.”

Many white Republicans also reject the idea that America is systematically racist.

At a February Haley event in Iowa, Charles Strange, a retired construction worker from North Liberty, Iowa, was more likely to see systemic issues hampering white people like him. “Structural barriers, let’s see,” Strange said. “Here’s a structural barrier: you have black quotas for education – a structural barrier for a white person.”

The downplaying of systemic racism by candidates of color aligns with the party’s drive to end the influence of “critical race theory” in how American history is taught and fund programs that advance diversity in public colleges.

DeSantis, who joined the presidential race last week, recently signed legislation eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education and scaling back what he called “woke” college programs. Florida’s Department of Education in January banned high schools from teaching an advanced placement course on African American studies, part of what the governor called an effort to combat “indoctrination” by left. Elsewhere, Republican-led state and local governments are rewriting textbooks and ridding public libraries of harsh racial lessons from the nation’s past.

“Of all the threats, there’s this national hatred that’s taken hold of our country, where people say America is bad or rotten or racist,” Haley told a crowd in Iowa earlier this year. “I was the first minority female governor in the country. I tell you that America is not a racist country. It is a blessed country.

Many Republican voters and local officials agree.

“I’m no more racist than any Democrat, but they like to label and push this against us,” Gloria Mazza, Republican Chairwoman of Polk County, Iowa, said at a Scott event in West Des Moines.

But the black public, even Republican, is much less receptive. Such difficulties for the party have manifested themselves recently for another Republican candidate of color, entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy.

Ramaswamy held a May 19 town hall in south Chicago, ostensibly to discuss the migrant crisis that has divided the city. He often talks about his feelings of isolation as the son of Indian immigrants growing up in suburban Cincinnati, but he says the experience made him stronger, not a victim. He also made the elimination of affirmative action central to a candidacy centered on a critique of identity politics.

But black voters have made it clear they firmly believe that systemic issues, past and present, are holding them back. The discussion kept moving from immigration to reparations for black Americans, mass incarceration, divestment from black neighborhoods and easily accessible high-powered weapons promoted by the gun industry.

“There is all the money in the world to incarcerate us, and nothing to reintegrate us into society,” said Tyrone F. Muhammad, founder of the group Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, looking directly at Ramaswamy, a man fabulously rich. investor. Muhammad added: “There are too many billionaires and millionaires in this country for it to look like it is.”

Next, Cornel Darden Jr. of the Southland Black Chamber of Commerce and Industry rose to confront Ramaswamy on affirmative action. “These laws have been in place for 70 years,” Darden said, “and we’re going to defend them.”

After months of telling a predominantly white audience that America is not a racist society, Ramaswamy acknowledged bigotry and said race-based preferences exacerbate it.

“I think anti-black racism is on the rise in America today,” Ramaswamy said. “I don’t want to throw kerosene on it.”

circa 2023 The New York Times Society

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