Among the loudest of Juan Williams’ champions when he was booted from NPR were conservatives who criticized the news executives Williams described as “elitist.” The mainstream media masters, it was said, could not abide a black man with an opinion that deviated from the liberal script. After being fired from NPR, Williams landed new fans, a book contract and a $2 million job at Fox News.
But in one moment, at Monday night’s South Carolina Republican debate—on a day celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King—the cheers turned to boos for that same man when he deviated from a different script. When he asked candidate Newt Gingrich about the racial impact of his criticism of poor Americans’ work ethic and his “food stamp” attacks on President Obama, Williams found out what it was like to go from hero to black bogeyman.
It didn’t take much.
More applause greeted a woman at one of Gingrich’s next campaign stops when she thanked him “for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place the other night.” South Carolina has a dreadful history of putting black folks in their places, of course, from brutal acts of violence during slave times through a century of Jim Crow. The Citadel, the state’s public military college, was created for that very reason.
It would be a mistake, though, to consider the debate exchange—hailed and publicized by the Gingrich team—an isolated South Carolina moment. (However, I would buy tickets to see the woman quoted above spend time with a fellow South Carolinian who asked Gingrich at a church stop if he was “still known throughout the country as a racist and a bigot.”)
Though Republicans talk a lot about welcoming minority voters it’s clear this is a one-way conversation, with one side lecturing and the other accepting opprobrium with deference. It’s a lesson black conservatives have learned.
One-time primary front-runner Herman Cain was a GOP darling while he followed the tea party line that, “I don’t believe racism in this country holds anybody back in a big way.” He could serve as stand-in for every black man as long as he assured his party that its outreach efforts were fine, and that African Americans who vote Democratic “have been brainwashed.” But the minute Cain expressed an opinion, that a racial epithet painted on a rock at a hunting camp leased by fellow candidate Rick Perry was “a sign of insensitivity,” his GOP friends turned on him, attacking him for “playing the race card.” Cain had to back down, explaining, “I really don’t care about that word.”
Colin Powell, the retired general who served both Presidents Bush, was at one time urged to make his own run for the White House. But as the party took a right turn from his more moderate views, and his disagreements with the GOP rankled, he was left to defend his legacy and his Republican affiliation. When he endorsed Obama in 2008, explaining his reasons in a lengthy and thoughtful appearance on Meet the Press, it was the last straw for radio host Rush Limbaugh, who judged his decision “purely and solely based on race.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney backed Limbaugh in the resulting and lasting feud, the years of Powell’s loyalty erased.
In any dialogue, both sides have to listen. But the crowds leaping to coronate Gingrich with a standing ovation as he continues his racially tinged road trip clearly think they have nothing to learn. That’s not the look of respect for difference in their eyes as they accept hook, line and sinker the myth that all food stamp-demanding black people need is the great, white Gingrich to lead them.
It hasn’t always been so for the GOP. That most famous of Republican presidents, Abraham Lincoln, leading a Civil War fought in large part over the issue of slavery, was no one’s idea of a racial progressive. Yet, he listened to abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. Douglass met with Lincoln, pushed and prodded him, to enlist the aid of black soldiers and to expand the goals of the war to include the hopes of African Americans. Douglass told a president what he didn’t want to hear about the men, women and children who built America and just wanted to be free.
Ironically, 150 years later, the language of slavery has been co-opted by the modern Republican Party to insult blacks. Rep. Allen West of Florida describes himself as a “modern-day Harriet Tubman” here to lead black voters away from the Democratic Party “plantation.” West better be careful that he doesn’t stray from this party line; he might discover the cost of true GOP diversity.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.