The Story of Steve Scalise is the Story of White America

How should we interpret a politician going up and speaking in front of a group? They do it all the time, both to large groups in public and small groups in private. They raise money for their campaigns by selling tickets and plates of often infamously questionable food to supporters, which generally come with a speech attached. Mitt Romney got in some hot water a few years back when one of the servers at such an event recorded what he really thought of the American people. But going on the television or having a fundraiser usually comes at the politician’s initiative. Politicians also make appearances by invitation of others. This often includes private groups.

When a politician accepts one of those invitations it must mean at least one of two things. The politician may seek the group’s support or the group has received the politician’s endorsement. Usually both situations apply to some degree. Groups simply don’t invite speakers antithetical to their own beliefs. It would be perverse, and hazardous to one’s career, for a politician to speak to a group diametrically opposed to his or her ideals as well. The obvious contradiction calls into question just what policies the politician actually prefers, just the same way as catching a vegan tucking into a steak would.

Steve Scalise, presently the third man in the Republican Party’s House leadership, spoke to a conference of white supremacists back in 2002. David Duke, the 1992 GOP candidate for governor of Louisiana, ran the group that organized the event. Had the white Louisianans had it to themselves to decide who won the race, they would have had Duke for a governor. His previous adventures included serving as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It beggars belief to imagine that Scalise, himself a Louisiana politician, did not know his name. Likewise Scalise could hardly have missed the message in the name of Duke’s group: European-American Unity and Rights Organization. They made no secret of such things:

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.

“I’m glad we’re staying away from it,” Pat Listach, then a Cubs coach, said in an interview earlier that month. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable staying there.”

The Duke group drew additional headlines nationally in the weeks before the Louisiana meeting. In mid-May 2002, USA Today reported that the organization was active in South Carolina and had “picketed” there to support the Confederate flag flying on state Capitol grounds.

Scalise pleads incompetence due to having only a single staffer at the time. This seems unlikely when even a baseball team from Iowa, hardly people with their finger on the pulse of Louisiana politics, caught on. If they could read USA Today, so could Scalise. But even if incompetence explains the speech itself, that still leaves us with the problem that between 2002 and now it seems he never revisited events and offered any kind of explanation. Only when caught by outsiders did he come forward and decide that EURO contradicted his deeply-held beliefs. Wouldn’t a person who genuinely felt that way have come forward sooner?

Scalise may simply not have cared one way or the other about the group. He insists that he would speak to anybody who invited him back in the day, whatever their beliefs. That sounds very open-minded of him, at least on the surface. The indifference, however, speaks volumes. If getting in bed with the Klan could get him what he wanted, Scalise would do so. He told us as much. How then does he differ from a rank and file Klansman? The distinction between a willingness to embrace white supremacy for political gain and harboring it in your heart seems rather academic. The votes fall the same way regardless. Scalise chose to go, eyes open, and take the money and court the endorsement of a convention of white supremacists.

We do not do ourselves favors by pretending such distinctions excuse politicians, past or present. Electing a black president didn’t make white supremacy go away. Neither did abolition, letting black athletes play professional sports, or civil rights laws. We tell ourselves stories about how bad things happened long ago and we do better now. They did and sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t and sometimes we continue. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips declared white supremacy the central theme of Southern history, but he didn’t need the last adjective. White supremacy stands among our most ancient and important values, whether we like to admit it or not. I submit we should stop declaring victory and start doing something about it.

Maybe Scalise can help. He could resign his seat. He could resign his leadership position. He could use this chance to take a real look at himself and resolve to do better. He might even do those on his own, without anyone putting the screws to him quietly behind closed doors. I wouldn’t bet on any of that. One does not get far in politics and then easily quit the business. But he could do it.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

So could his fellow white Americans. We don’t have a habit of rushing to do that either. Nor do we, despite what we tell ourselves, contain white supremacy in a tidy little box as a retrograde idea. We assume it. We take it for granted and let it guide our behavior. We see pathologies that afflict black Americans and explain them away as innate to blackness rather than imposed upon black Americans by white Americans. Why didn’t the slave work hard? Rascality. Dysaesthesia Aethopica. Why did they run away? Drapetomania. Nothing but madness could explain their behavior. Certainly nothing whites did could.

Why don’t black Americans today do as well as white Americans? Certainly we whites can’t share any of the blame. We could never have rigged the entire system to take from them the success they could manage just as well as we can and pocket it ourselves. Who would do that, except a bunch of white supremacists?

How about a bunch of white supremacists who pretend otherwise? Henry VIII, he of many divorces, annulments, and beheaded wives, confiscated England’s monasteries and promptly sold most of their lands off to wealthy men. This created a party eager to defend his religious settlement, as an England reconciled to Rome might have to restore that property to its previous owners. They bought in, literally.

Across the ocean, we do things the same way. The white hands that type these posts did not personally take anything from anybody, but received stolen goods all the same. White supremacy requires bad actors. It requires violence. It cannot thrive without one or the other. But it also requires people to buy in. Few of us want to do that in as many words, but we do it often enough all the same. It doesn’t require all of us to proceed with conscious malice; we have built a far more subtle machine than that. It lives on in the things we take for granted. Black people don’t do as well as whites. Things just work out that way. Black people have to fear the police in a way whites do not. So it goes. These things just all happen, or so we tell ourselves. That doing so requires us to assume black people simply deserve bad things in a way whites do not doesn’t come to mind, or at the very least that we have no power to do anything about it even when we have so much power to accomplish other things. We assume white supremacy, carefully hiding it from ourselves even as we do.

That concealment has shaped the politics of the decades since open racial hatred went out of fashion. Lee Atwater said it best in describing Republican strategy back in the 1980s, when the party adopted the banner of white power that the Democrats had reluctantly abandoned:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As a byproduct, blacks get hurt worse than whites. Things just happen; no reason. People behave randomly, without thought. We’ve abstracted away the motives, removed reality from the equation, and made it easier to buy in. We have carefully colorblinded ourselves and so proclaim that we have white supremacy problem.

That’s mighty white of us.

I would like to resign my whiteness. I did not create it; I did not run for the office of white man. But people give it to me and I don’t know that I can stop it on my own. The privileges transferred out of black lives and into mine move through other minds that I cannot control. Personally rejecting the benefits of whiteness will not stop me from enjoying them because they come in how others treat me better and still others worse. It took a society to create whiteness. It will take another to uncreate it.

We have that power. Griping of the more embittered and consciously malicious of us aside, we still control the levers of power, both political and social. We may have to share sometimes, but I don’t see our black neighbors waging a desperate battle to stop us. It would take more than a day. It would take a fight. We cannot, contra Paine, create the world anew. But no law of nature demands we continue as we have, unchanged and unchanging. We could do better every day and every year and, for once in our history, not leave the job unfinished.

That would not be very white of us; that would be resigning our whiteness in favor of human decency.

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