Opinion: They brought it on themselves
He’s a Republican, of course.
Meaning South Dakota State Rep. Michael Clark. Last Monday, Clark, being presumably of sound mind and body, suggested on Facebook that maybe racial segregation wouldn’t be such a bad idea. A businessman, he wrote, “should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants. If he wants to turn away people of color, that’s his choice.”
Naturally, he apologized the next day. But what were we supposed to do with that? This was not a poor choice of words or an ill-considered thought. You do not “oops” segregation, as Clark himself tacitly acknowledged in describing his remarks as “very racist.” Well, yes, they were. And?
But there was no “and.” One was left with a sense of a mask slipping loose. Or maybe a hood being removed.
You are allowed to be surprised by Clark’s ignorance and lack of anything resembling a clue. But you are not allowed to be surprised by his party affiliation. Indeed, it would have been more shocking were he not a member of the GOP. While it cannot be said that every Republican is an overt racist, surely it is beyond debate that every overt racist runs as a Republican.
That’s the unfortunate crossroads to which the party has come after 50 years of Southern strategy, “welfare queens” and birtherism. These days, if a politician says something racially offensive — calling Barack Obama a “boy,” for instance, or calling his wife an “ape” or calling black people “race pimps” or bemoaning the so-called “war on whites” or pining for actual, honest-to-Bull-Connor segregation — you can bet your paycheck he’s a Republican.
About which nobody should be angrier than decent Republicans. Their once-noble party has become the de facto home of cranks and kooks, haters and race baiters. Worse, it brought this on itself, becoming so addicted to the politics of resentment, grievance and fear that it lost the ability to deliver any other message.
In the process, it has embraced and empowered nakedly racist political language of a kind not seen since the 1960s. Dog whistles have been rendered obsolete. What need have you for such an antique tool when the White House is occupied by a guy whose very name is chanted as a racist taunt and District 09 of South Dakota is represented by a supporter of segregation?
Curiously, the story of Clark’s accidentally speaking his mind came and went with little notice. Perhaps that’s because he’s a state legislator with no national profile. Or maybe it’s outrage fatigue, people worn to an emotional nub by a steady diet of the shocking and disgraceful.
Either way, we ought not sleep on this moment. This moment has meaning. You may remember how Sen. Rand Paul infamously questioned the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes the sort of thing Clark suggested illegal. In so doing, he tiptoed up to the Rubicon. But Clark just goosestepped across in hobnail boots.
One finds little solace in the fact that he came scrambling back. If the current state of American politics proves nothing else, it proves that today’s outliers are too often tomorrow’s harbingers. So there is something deeply ominous in hearing Clark bring back to the table the hateful policies of yesterday’s America — and in the relative lack of umbrage that followed.
Apparently, that’s the price of deregulation and tax cuts for billionaires. “What the hell do you have to lose?” the Republican candidate for president asked African Americans in 2016. The answer was obvious then, but Clark just made it more so.
Everything, and then some.
— Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.