“I’ve heard racists say all kinds of things. I’ve heard them say that Black people are criminals, and I’ve heard them say that reparations are reverse racism. But it takes a true racism innovator to combine both ideas at the same time.” — Trevor Noah
Until last Saturday, Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s most significant contribution to racial justice was asking students and fans of the University of Mississippi, where he was a head football coach in 1997, to stop waving the Confederate flag at home sporting events.
Lest anyone doubt, all these years later, that his request was motivated by principle rather than self-interest — public displays of racism made it difficult to recruit Black athletes — Tuberville has laid his cards on the table. At a Trump rally in Nevada on Saturday night, Sen. Tommy Tuberville explicitly referred to Black Americans as “the people that do the crime.”
Even in this era of heightened racial rhetoric, Tuberville’s undisguised bigotry was stunning.
The following day at a Trump rally in Arizona, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene drew criticism for saying immigrants “are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture. And that’s not great for America.”
Greene spoke earlier this year at a white nationalist conference and is barred from sitting on congressional committees because of incendiary social media posts. Her comments might not even have attracted much attention had they not followed on the heels of Tuberville’s stunning outburst.
Greene’s notoriety and Tuberville’s comments signal the escalation of a menacing trend that Donald Trump revived when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by calling immigrants criminals and rapists.
The exploitation of bigotry and racial resentment to win elections is a ploy nearly as old as the nation itself. As early as 1798, the two major parties — then the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans wrangled over the residency requirements for immigrants to become citizens (and thus voters). The Native American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings, was founded in 1944, based wholly on hatred for Catholic immigrants.
Post-Civil War, explicitly anti-Black racism emerged as a primary issue in national elections. “Exaggerated stories of Black crime” and accusations of “miscegenation” were hallmarks of the 1868 campaign. “Fear of Blacks and the need to maintain white power was a dominant, primary theme, not a subtext,” political scientist Tali Mendelberg wrote in “The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality.”
As late as 1968, presidential candidate George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, campaigned in favor of racial segregation. By 1980, however, overt racial appeals had given way to coded rhetoric such as the “welfare queen” stereotype employed by Ronald Reagan.
“Any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner,” political strategist Lee Atwater said in 1981.
Race-baiting politicians like Tuberville and Greene are putting it back on the front burner. It’s up to their colleagues to extinguish the flames.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.