In another, Democrats toss around toxic and unfounded accusations of racism against well-meaning Republicans who want only to achieve secure elections and keep their families safe.
But there’s another dimension to this conflict. Republicans, I would argue, want Democrats to accuse them of racism.
In fact, what just happened in Georgia — the passage of a voter-suppression law so appalling that President Biden called it “Jim Crow in the 21st century” — was a double victory for the GOP. Republicans got their law passed, and they also got the opportunity to renew the sense of racial victimization they have so carefully cultivated among their constituents for years.
It’s not the only racialized controversy we’ve seen of late. A round-up:
- Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he “never felt threatened” during the deadly Capitol riot, but would have if those involved had been Black Lives Matter protesters.
- When the Tennessee Historical Commission voted to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest — Confederate general and first grand wizard of the KKK — from the state capitol, Republicans swung into action to retaliate against the commission (and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day will still be observed in the state).
- South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, eager to burnish her culture war bona fides, started a beef with rapper Lil Nas X.
- After Democrats began noting that the filibuster has long been used primarily to kill civil rights legislation, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) executed a deft bit of trolling by saying the filibuster “has no racial history at all. None.”
And then there’s Georgia.
While it’s hardly the only state where Republicans are determined to make voting as difficult as possible to give themselves an electoral advantage, the changes advanced there were particularly blatant in targeting Black voters. One provision would have limited early voting on Sundays, a direct attack on “souls to the polls” drives for Black voters after church services.
That was ultimately dropped. But the package that passed included a particularly repugnant measure making it a crime to give water to people waiting on line at the polls (minority voters typically have to wait longer to vote than White voters). There’s also a provision that shifts power from the state election board to the state legislature. In a future election, the GOP legislature could decide it didn’t like the results in a heavily minority county, then essentially seize control of that county’s election apparatus to change them.
I promise you, Republicans were not at all surprised when Democrats both in Georgia and at the national level called this law a new kind of Jim Crow. They may have even been counting on it.
That’s because they know that their political success depends on motivating their base through a particular racial narrative, one with a number of key components.
The first is that conservatives and White people are increasingly oppressed, both by racial minorities themselves and by institutions that are too deferential toward those minorities.
So in this recent Economist/YouGov poll, 75 percent of Republicans said that in America today conservatives face real discrimination, while 49 percent said the same of Black people. Last year the Public Religion Research Institute found that although 52 percent of Republicans said Black people face discrimination, 57 percent said White people face discrimination. Among those who relied on Fox News, only 36 percent said Black people face discrimination, while 58 percent said White people do.
That belief did not arise from people’s daily experiences. There are not millions of White people who only concluded that they are the victims of anti-White racism after being denied bank loans, redlined into segregated neighborhoods, followed around stores by security guards, pulled over by police despite committing no traffic violations or told that they only got jobs because they’re White.
No, they came to this conclusion because they’ve been told over and over that they are the real victims, and that no form of racism is more unjust than a White person being unfairly accused of being racist — and that conservatives can’t open their mouths without being shot down by that accusation.
This is a daily drumbeat in conservative media, on Fox News and talk radio. Along with it is the idea that Whites do indeed have an enormous amount to fear from minorities; conservative media portray Black Lives Matter not as a movement for racial justice but as an army of destruction that rampaged across the country last summer, murdering untold numbers of people and burning entire cities to the ground (you probably know that this is not true).
So when a controversy like the Georgia law arises, Republicans are ready. Here’s Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a ninth-degree black belt in feigned outrage, laying it down for the viewers of “Fox News Sunday”:
So every time a Republican does anything, we’re a racist. If you’re a White conservative, you’re a racist. If you’re a Black Republican, you’re either a prop or Uncle Tom. They use the racism card to advance a liberalism agenda and we’re tired of it.
But Republicans are not actually “tired of it.” They’re counting on it.
We’re the real victims here, they’ll keep crying, in the hope that it will heighten the salience of Whiteness and keep voters from asking what the GOP has actually done for them lately.