The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans go back to their bottomless well of race-baiting

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), author of the Cutting Off Rampant Access to Crack Kits (CRACK) Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

There’s an old opposition research tactic campaigns use: Take a huge bill your opponent voted for, scour it for the most controversial provision, and accuse the opponent of advocating something shocking. “Look what this scoundrel is spending taxpayer money on!” you can then say.

It’s usually baloney. But when Republicans do it, they almost always seem to gravitate in one direction: race-baiting.

They’ll get terribly angry if you suggest such a thing; nothing gets conservatives more worked up than their conviction that they’re constantly targeted by unfair accusations of racism. But their behavior speaks for itself.

This time it’s “crack pipes.” Briefly, the facts are these: The Department of Health and Human Services has a $30 million grant program (or one-half of one-thousandth of 1 percent of the federal budget) for local harm-reduction projects, which bring drug addicts in for services rather than just locking them in jail. Those often involve things such as clean needles and supervised locations where addicts can use without overdosing.

The conservative Washington Free Beacon published an article Monday falsely claiming that HHS confirmed that its funds “will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and ‘any illicit substance.’”

As The Post’s Fact Checker documents, that’s not what HHS said. (The Free Beacon argues that it confirmed the substance of government-provided kits.) But it didn’t matter. The Free Beacon headline blared “Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity,’” and the “Biden is giving out crack pipes!” meme was born.

Conservatives often dislike harm-reduction programs, but they weren’t making a substantive policy argument this time. They didn’t focus on needle exchange, or on how those programs might be used by people addicted to crystal meth or heroin or prescription opioids.

Instead, they homed right in on crack pipes. Why would that be? We all know the reason, and anyone who tells you they don’t is lying.

This is race-baiting, pure and simple. Crack cocaine is associated in the public mind with Black people in cities (even though people of all races have used it), just as crystal meth is associated with White people in rural areas (even though people of all races have used that, too).

Republicans know a juicy excuse for racial incitement when they see one. “Taxpayer $$$ shouldn’t be used to provide drug paraphernalia like crack pipes to Americans,” tweeted Sen. Chuck Grassley. Sen. Marco Rubio linked the mythical crack pipe distribution to “racial equity," and rushed to draft a quickie bill, which a bevy of Republicans co-sponsored, called the Cutting Off Rampant Access to Crack Kits (CRACK) Act.

Not the OPIOIDS Act, or the HEROIN Act. The CRACK Act.

That bill will never be the subject of a congressional hearing, or a markup, or a vote. It’s essentially a Fox News pitch written in legislative language.

And oh boy, are they excited on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. This non-story has gotten blanket coverage over the past few days.

This is a good reminder of how absolutely central race-baiting is to today’s conservative media, which is built on keeping its audience of older White people in a state of perpetual anger and resentment.

At various times in recent years, a different figure was the most influential conservative media personality of the moment: Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck. And today it’s Tucker Carlson. What do they have in common, apart from being skilled propagandists?

They all reached the top by leaning hard into race-baiting. At the height of his popularity, Beck said that Barack Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for White people." Limbaugh spent decades stoking white grievance. O’Reilly complained about “open season” on White men. Carlson’s program is such a festival of racial grievance that observers have begun to refer to it as the White Power Hour.

This is a cooperative effort between conservative media and Republican lawmakers like Rubio, who provide the fodder for endless outrage segments and use them to shore up their support among the GOP base. This is only the latest example.

Remember “Obamaphones”? Republicans took a program created under Ronald Reagan to help low-income people access telecommunication service and turned it into a story about lazy Black people living high off the hog. In 2012, they found a video of a Black woman praising Obama for giving her a phone and spread it through every media outlet they had, garnering millions of views.

The message was clear: That Black president is giving shiftless Black welfare recipients things they don’t deserve.

Or how about “Midnight Basketball”? The idea of nighttime recreation programs to give young people an alternative to the street was weaponized by Republicans when funds for it were included in the 1994 crime bill. One Republican congressman railed at “the theory that the person who stole your car, robbed your house and assaulted your family was no more than a disgruntled artist or would-be NBA star.”

Or the recent program to address decades of racist policies shutting Black farmers out of generous support the government long provided to White farmers, by giving the Black farmers a little focused assistance? Republicans spun it into a story of discrimination against Whites.

This is all old-hat for Republicans. Yet when they aren’t race-baiting, they complain about how they’re being unfairly accused of racism. I wonder what they might do to change that.