Herschel Walker is an abomination of a civics lesson. But he is more than that. He is an affront. His is the politics of disrespect.
He has been the punchline for a multitude of comedians who have highlighted the sordid allegations that surround him like a storm cloud and for his propensity to get lost in his own sentences. In a “Saturday Night Live” monologue, Dave Chappelle described Walker as “observably stupid.”
Walker is also a Republican. He is a candidate for a party that conducted, what came to be called, an autopsy after its losses in the 2012 election and determined that to prevail in the future it needed to attract a more diverse group of voters and candidates to its orthodoxy. One might interpret that to mean that the party needed to search out the best and the brightest, but because of Trumpism, Republicans offered up Walker, who has described himself as a “country boy, you know. I’m not that smart.”
Walker was comparing himself to Warnock, who is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which was the home church of Martin Luther King Jr. Warnock is a graduate of Morehouse College; Walker has lied about graduating from the University of Georgia. Walker is Black. And if he prevails over Warnock, who is also Black, he would join a tiny minority of Black men in the Senate: Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
Walker, a former football player, was born in 1962, which places him in a generation that often heard a kind of mantra from their elders about just what it took to succeed in life. The message was not simply that they had to do all that was required; they had to do that and more because society was predisposed to underestimate them, to dismiss them, to ignore them. They had to be better than their White peers simply to be viewed as equal. Striving upward was not just an individual pursuit, it was also a communal one. Excelling was a form of profound gratitude, a thank-you to those older folks who had marched and bled and died to clear a path. A failure to prepare was an insult. To lie was a sin. To lose focus was sheer laziness.
Walker is a disappointment. Not as a former Heisman Trophy-winning athlete or as a conservative but as a Black man competing on a national stage to add a second Black Republican to the Senate, to broaden the conversation so that conservative Black Americans can be better heard and understood, to help turn scarcity into plenty.
Instead of exemplifying the best and the brightest, Walker personifies muddled willingness, nonchalant mediocrity, inexcusable indifference to truth.
If Walker’s campaign should succeed, he would not necessarily be the most ill-equipped person in the Senate or the one most likely to deliver an incomprehensible speech. But consider Walker’s past remarks. While arguing that the Biden administration is spending too much money to fight global warming, Walker asked, “Don’t we have enough trees around here?” In discussing climate change, he suggested that “bad air” from China swaps places with “good air” in Georgia. Walker isn’t alone in his ignorance. He isn’t alone in treating climate change as a joke. But he is very likely to be the single most ill-equipped and incomprehensible Black man in the Senate.
And while that shouldn’t matter, it does. If there was equity in this world, Walker should be able to be as dim as a flickering lightbulb and have his success or failure be little more than a measure of how much the voters of Georgia value party politics. There are Black conspiracy theorists and election deniers, each one arguing the validity of their falsehoods. But when there are so few Black men — or women — in a room on Capitol Hill, each one has an outsize meaning. They are, in fact, speaking for the multitudes. Theirs is a voice that heralds the existence, importance and possible contributions of so many others, some who look like them and think like them — and some who do not.
In politics, the best and the brightest Black folks quite often don’t run. And when they do, they don’t always win — no matter how prepared, how experienced or how eloquent. Sometimes, mediocrity wins. Sometimes average is victorious. And that’s okay.
But being twice as bad is not a measure of progress.