Steve Smith, Racism, and the Republican Dilemma

Let me stipulate up front that I do not believe all Republicans are racists. I know and know of a number of Republicans committed to fairness and fighting racial, ethnic and cultural inequality and all of its byproducts. I also do not believe all racists are Republicans. There are a number of third-parties that espouse racist ideology that are not tied in any way to the Republican Party. However, it appears to me that the evidence is mounting that when faced with a choice between the Democrats and the Republicans, racist candidates for office choose the Grand Old Party.

The latest data point in the Republicans magnetizing hold on American racist politicians comes from Pennsylvania where white nationalist Steve Smith was elected to the Luzerne County Republican Party committee. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Smith co-founded the Keystone State Skinheads, now known as Keystone United, and has a long record of white nationalist activism and participation in neo-Nazi organizations. He was also state party chairman of American Third Party, a white nationalist political party.

While national party leaders would say otherwise, Steve Smith represents a dilemma for the GOP. How the party responds will go a long way toward answering questions about the extent to which it will go to win elections. Why would someone like Steve Smith decide that his political future lie with the Republicans? And what does it say about the Republicans that people like Steve Smith seek its imprimatur and their voters say yes?

The answer may lie in the party's track record on race. It has been trafficking, overtly and covertly, in racial symbolism for nearly a half century. In the 1960s we saw states' rights, "law and order", the "silent majority", and the southern strategy. In the 1970s it was reverse racism, and convincing rural whites that affirmative action -- and not corporate decisions to move jobs to cheaper labor markets abroad -- was responsible for their jobs going away and their wages stagnating. In the 1980s it was the Republican apparatus trying to undermine black civil rights leadership, defund federal civil rights enforcement, veto anti-apartheid legislation, and produce the racist Willie Horton campaign ad in support of Vice President George H. W. Bush's successful presidential campaign. That decade closed with the 1989 election of Republican David Duke, a white supremacist Ku Klux Klan member, to a seat in the Louisiana legislature. The 1990s continued the trend with nuanced voter suppression tactics targeting black voters. The new millennium saw the Grand Old Party double down on racially targeted crime control policies and continue its push to demonize Mexican immigrants for political purposes. The track record is clear: over the years, the Republican Party has made itself into a far more attractive and hospitable place to Steve Smith and people of his ilk.

It is important not to conflate racism with the Republican brand. However, it is also important for the party, and those who vote for its candidates, to look at itself and wonder why it elects racists. Given the demographic changes afoot in the country, there is no evidence that remaining silent about this growing cancer on the party is a winning strategy going forward. America is browning as African Americans and Latinos comprise an increasing proportion of the nation's population. Republican silence only continues to feed the narrative that the party will take the support of racists to win elections.

Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of "Republicans and the Black Vote." He blogs at @MKFauntroy

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