In the annals of weird and revealing arguments between members of Congress, the one that took place between Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday stands out. Along with a less fiery but equally revealing moment in a Senate hearing on Tuesday involving Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), it showed how the fact that we’re now discussing structural racism has Republicans seriously freaked out.

Their response is to attempt to take a debate about institutions and structures — policing, criminal justice, housing, health care, banking, employment, education and so much else — and reframe it as just about individual hearts. Which accomplishes two things. First, it renders them blameless, since they can assert “I’m no racist!” and take great affront at any suggestion otherwise. Second, it diverts us from ambitious reform to combat racism, if all we have to do is find the “bad apples” and get rid of them.

Let’s begin in the House, where Richmond, plainly exasperated that the debate over police reform had been diverted into all kinds of other tangents, said to his white colleagues, “Please do not come in this committee room and make a mockery of the pain that exists in my community,” and raised the possibility that “unconscious bias” was playing a part in this debate.

At that point, Rep. Gaetz asked Richmond, “Are you suggesting that you’re certain that none of us have nonwhite children?”

“Matt, Matt, stop. I’m not about to get sidetracked about the color of our children,” Richmond replied. “It’s not about the color of your kids. It is about black males, black people in the streets that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid I’m concerned about him, too. And clearly I’m more concerned about him than you are.”

At that, Gaetz exploded in rage: “You’re claiming you have more concern for my family than I do? Who in the hell do you think you are?!”

That Richmond would question the depth of Gaetz’s concern for his black children might indeed be insulting, were it not for the fact that Matt Gaetz has no children at all, black or otherwise.

That made the exchange particularly bizarre, but the point is that Gaetz, a frequent practitioner of performative outrage, saw his opportunity to take angry offense when the discussion got personal.

Let’s keep that in mind as we turn to a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which Cornyn asked Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, about structural racism, an idea he seemed to be unfamiliar with.

“What does that mean? That means everything, every institution, every person in America is a racist?” Cornyn asked.

But the whole point of structural or institutional racism is that it doesn’t depend on any individual purposefully devoting themselves to destroying the lives of nonwhite people. So Gupta replied, “It means that there is bias built into existing institutions.”

But that wasn’t good enough for Cornyn, who insisted on bringing the focus back to the individual: “Do you believe that basically all Americans are racist?” he asked.

Gupta replied, “I think we all have implicit bias and racial bias,” which is not a particularly controversial thing to say if you’re familiar with research on this topic that shows that even people of color assimilate stereotypes about different kinds of people. It often operates at a subconscious level and can be seen in ways large and small, like where your mind goes when I say the word “doctor” or “convict.”

Because Gupta is steeped in these issues, that’s how she understood and answered the question, even if she was much more interested in talking about institutions and structures. But for Cornyn, racism is a clearly a binary identity: Either you’re “a racist” or you aren’t, and if you believe yourself to be a person of goodwill and don’t literally have Klan robes hidden in your closet, then by definition you cannot possibly be “a racist.”

So when Gupta said we all have implicit biases, Cornyn seemed to hear that as She just said I’m a racist! “Wow,” he replied. “You lost me when you want to take the acts of a few misguided, perhaps malicious individuals and ascribe that to all Americans.”

Of course, she was doing nothing of the sort — unless, like Cornyn, you want desperately to believe that racism is a binary, and since we’re not all racists, therefore there’s no structural racism, and the whole problem is just about certain “malicious individuals” who can be found and removed.

We keep hearing this from Republicans, especially high-ranking Trump administration officials (see here or here): Sure, there are some racists around, but there’s no systemic racism, because that would mean everyone is a racist, and that can’t be true.

The White House is considering President Trump holding an address to the nation on race and unity. Columnist Dana Milbank says he's already given it. (The Washington Post)

There’s one other goal this kind of framing can accomplish: It allows white men in particular to say their feelings are hurt, and they know well that ordinarily, when they say that everyone drops everything to assuage them. You may recall a particularly vivid incident in which then-Rep. Mark Meadows, now White House chief of staff, mistakenly thought Rep. Rashida Tlaib had called him a racist, grinding a congressional hearing to a halt while everyone madly reassured him that the contents of his pure heart were not in question.

That’s how it usually goes, which is what was so striking about what Richmond said. He made clear that he really didn’t care about the hurt feelings of white members of Congress, an assertion so shocking that it led Gaetz to imply he had imaginary black children and erupt in fury.

But if the debate is about structures — not about the animus that does or doesn’t lie in any one person’s heart — then Republicans can’t say “Are you calling me a racist???” and have everyone drop everything to placate them. And frankly, it’s about time. We have more important things to deal with.

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