Republican Convention Shows Diversity Dilemma

Being a Black or brown politician in a party dedicated to buttressing racial hierarchy is both existential quandary and personal opportunity. Republican voters have shown they will reward nonwhite political leaders who safeguard the status quo generally even as they upset it particularly. And Republican leaders are always eager to showcase, and advance, whatever meager diversity the party can muster.

In her appearance at the Republican convention last week, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered a master class in navigating between racism and denial that it exists.

“In much of the Democratic Party, it’s now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie,” said Haley, who grew up in an immigrant Sikh family in rural South Carolina before rocketing to political success. “America is not a racist country.”

Seconds later, Haley said her family “faced discrimination and hardship, but my parents never gave into grievance and hate.” Moments after that, she recounted the 2015 murder of Black parishioners at a Charleston church by a White supremacist. Just seconds later, she said, her state collectively “made the hard choices needed to heal, and removed a divisive symbol peacefully and respectfully.”

The symbol, of course, was a Confederate flag. It flew at the state capitol, a location that ensured it would not only be a symbol of white supremacy but a daily assertion of it. Why was it there? Why was it “divisive”? If you answered “racism,” you must be a Democrat.

To recap: Haley’s Punjabi family faced discrimination. A White supremacist murdered Black churchgoers in her state just five years ago. The aftermath of the murder made it possible to remove, over the vehement objections of some white citizens, a symbol of white supremacy from a place of high honor. Also, any imputation of racism is a fashionable Democratic lie.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, one of two Black Republicans in Congress, had a more streamlined message with fewer loose ends.

My grandfather's 99th birthday would have been tomorrow. Growing up, he had to cross the street if a white person was coming. He suffered the indignity of being forced out of school as a third grader to pick cotton, and never learned to read or write,” Scott said. “Yet, he lived to see his grandson become the first African American to be elected to both the United States House and Senate. Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.”

That may be an open invitation to Whites to applaud themselves for lowering the costs of bigotry. But it’s also historical fact. And Scott doesn’t pretend that racism, like coronavirus, can be disappeared with magic words or a good dousing of bleach. “We are not fully where we want to be,” he said, “but thank God we are not where we used to be!”

Yet while championing the unfinished journey of racial justice, Scott vows to protect his audience from too much of a good thing. “Joe Biden's radical Democrats are trying to permanently transform what it means to be an American,” Scott warned. “Make no mistake: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution. A fundamentally different America.”

What goes unstated is that the central promise of this “cultural revolution” is to elevate more people who look like Haley and Scott to positions of power at the expense of Trump’s white nationalist reaction.

While Haley went short and convoluted, and Scott emphasized the long journey toward justice, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is Black, simply elided the conflict that the others finessed. “Sadly, there are some who don’t believe in this wisdom or in the better angels of our shared American history,” he intoned, “as they tear down the statues of people like Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass and even Mr. Lincoln himself.”

It’s not false that, in the effort to cleanse American public spaces of racist iconography, statues of Douglass, Grant and Lincoln have also been attacked. But as Cameron well knows, it’s also mostly beside the point. Statues of “people like” the abolitionist Douglass are not the sort being systematically targeted for removal. Statues of people who sought to enslave Douglass are. In Cameron’s own state of Kentucky, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was finally removed from the capitol in June after serving as a beacon and proclamation of White supremacy for 84 years.

Cameron supported that statue’s removal. But at a Republican convention re-nominating Trump for president, it was safer to discuss the outliers — Douglass, Grant, Lincoln — than the highly relevant Confederates who still elicit sympathy among Republican base voters. Why was White supremacy enshrined in marble at the Kentucky state capital until only two months ago? Why did some Kentuckians wish to keep it there? Never mind.

The Trump Convention was incoherent both by necessity (the ideology of Trumpism, beyond white racial grievance and status anxiety, is whatever Trump perceives to be good for Trump at any minute) and design. But anyone simultaneously voicing support for racial equality and for MAGA’s quest to return to the paradise lost of unchallenged White supremacy faced an especially high degree of rhetorical difficulty. The pairing requires creativity.

That perhaps explains the most curious lyric of the GOP convention. “The truth is,” Scott said at one point, “our nation's arc always bends back towards fairness.”

The reference is familiar — “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King Jr. said. But in addition to making the phrase more compact and colloquial, Scott reversed the direction of the arc. It no longer stretches toward the ideal of justice in an imagined, more perfect, future. Instead, it’s bending “back” to the past, the direction of injustice, brutality and, not coincidentally, of the anxious, base yearnings of MAGA. 

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

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.