Hollywood and politics intersected yesterday as they often do. From the mistreatment of Native Americans to the mistreatment of our earth, the Oscars are often forums for political protest. Last night, Hollywood and politics collided on the original sin of racism. Chris Rock, from his blindingly white tuxedo to his stream of pointed jokes on Hollywood’s mistreatment of minorities, gave one perspective from a stage in Hollywood; Donald Trump gave another from a CNN set in Washington. Asked whether he would disavow white supremacist David Duke, who is supporting his campaign, Trump said he didn’t know enough about him. (This morning, under fire, Trump blamed a “faulty earpiece” for his failure to disavow Duke, one of our nation’s most notorious racists.)
From the two coasts, two very different perspectives on racism. For Rock and many others, racism remains a persistent American fact, even in liberal Hollywood, despite willful denial. Even our first African American president can fall under the spell of denial; Rock told a “joke” about being a token guest at a recent Hollywood fundraiser and having to remind President Obama that all the nice white liberals in attendance don’t hire blacks to work in Hollywood. Trump and many others think it’s time to stop apologizing for racism; believing that America had paid its dues and that the constant harping on racism is political correctness at best and, at worst, a move by blacks and their liberal white enablers to impose reverse discrimination.
This latter position was represented in a very revealing series of comments on “Morning Joe” this morning by Steve Schmidt, the Republican operative who ran John McCain’s campaign. Asked about Trump’s response on Duke, Schmidt first said it might have been the result of too little sleep. Under further prodding, he said that any candidate must condemn anything to do with the KKK and suggested that Trump needed to understand and represent the Republican Party’s proud tradition of promoting racial equality. Finally, he said that in 2008, McCain’s entire message was drowned out every day by “an apology tour” where the candidate always had to answer for some racist comment a heckler would make at a McCain rally. He blamed, in effect, the press’ political correctness for obsessing on these comments, which McCain strongly disavowed.
There are many things to say about Schmidt’s analysis, but the most important may be his incomplete history of the Republican Party and race. It is certainly true that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and that the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s was championed by Republicans and opposed by many Democrats. But, with Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” Republicans began to exploit the racial wedge that Lyndon B. Johnson famously predicted when he said his support for civil rights would lose the South for Democrats for generations. And from Ronald Reagan announcing his candidacy in 1980 in Neshoba County, Miss., near the scene of the murders of civil rights activists and using the coded term “states’ rights,” to David Duke running for governor in Louisiana and getting 671,000 votes, to Donald Trump sending his signal of solidarity with a slice of Southern Republicans, the GOP has too often mined the ugly emotions of racism for political gain.
Last night showed us that wariness and denial of racism still exist, from liberal Hollywood to the conservative South. Will we ever overcome?