Public servants are supposed to serve every one of their constituents faithfully. Iowa’s 4th Congressional District is nearly monochromatic, but there are some voters of color living there. They should have a representative in Congress who isn’t a white supremacist. Frankly, so should the white residents.
It is hardly radical to suggest that exhibitions of bigotry — such as those of Rep. Steve King, of that 4th District in Iowa — should be a firable offense throughout all levels of government. It is high atop President Trump’s own list of impeachable offenses. It is also the principal reason that King should have been expelled from Congress rather than merely removed from his committee assignments for asking aloud in the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” The punishment was only harsh in comparison to the void of what was done before to address King’s past embrace of white supremacy.
In a country this sick with racism, there shouldn’t be this much applause for curing a cold. Especially not one that has lasted this long.
There was little reason to hope for much more, especially when Republicans can expect the story to fade from public interest. (They count on it; Reps. Andy Harris and Phil Roe, two Republicans who voted to denounce King on the House floor, thought nothing of meeting with a Holocaust denier and white supremacist inside Congress the very next day.) The next time King likens migrants from the south to livestock or says that they have calves the size of cantaloupes or something similarly vomitous, we’ll once again demand that Something Must Be Done, the same something that Congress has always had the power to do and should have done years ago. We are used to this with King, and they surely count on our shrugs and the short shelf life of our outrage. But as tempting as it is to scold Republicans for going easy on their colleague once again, there’s something larger at play here.
“Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence when things like this are said,” wrote Tim Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, in a Washington Post op-ed last week. I would venture that a great many Americans do not charge Republicans with racist deeds or actions because of what they say, or what they don’t say when something offensive comes to light. This is about what they do.
Scott had plenty of sharp words for his colleague in the House, but none for the president and the border wall he wants to erect. I’d call it benign ignorance were it not such a consistent pattern on the right — this redefinition of racism to be about words rather than actions, punditry rather than policy. Now, even amidst a record-long government shutdown caused by a president holding America ransom over this wall, Scott chose to take a stance on King. If he was so hard against racism, why not oppose what University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps aptly called “history’s largest WHITES ONLY sign, visible from space”? Perhaps because that doesn’t get as many retweets?
This isn’t just Scott’s shortcoming. It is on the press, too. I can assure you that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who just last August warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” when he found himself facing black Democrat Andrew Gillum, will earn more headlines for pardoning the Groveland Four last Friday than for the Trumpian platform he is about to wreak on the state. Will DeSantis, for instance, comment on the marked racial disparities that the state’s ACLU found last year throughout Miami-Dade County’s criminal justice system? Or is it just easier, and more popular, to focus on the black men who are already dead?
The Groveland Four were falsely accused in 1949 of raping a white teenage girl named Norma Padgett (who is still alive and protested the pardon). Earnest Thomas was murdered by a mob days after the arrest. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both World War II veterans, saw their death sentences overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the segregationist sheriff, Willis McCall, later shot Shepherd and Irvin in cold blood on their way to a retrial, killing Shepherd. Charles Greenlee was only 16, so he just got a life sentence. (All these years later, the United States is still the only nation on Earth that hands out these sentences to children.) Greenlee, an expectant father when he was imprisoned, passed away 50 years after his 1962 parole.
I have no interest in denying credit where it is due, so let us assess what DeSantis did: he pardoned four black men who are all dead, three of them for generations now. I do not deny that there is value in seeing a beloved family member’s name cleared, but there needs to be another name for this that is not “justice.” It isn’t’ “injustice,” because that would be doing nothing. It is more akin to the dream deferred that Langston Hughes wrote of in his poem Harlem, from which Lorraine Hansberry derived the title of her famous play, A Raisin in the Sun. Seventy years later, this pardon is more like the festering sore than the syrupy sweet, reminding us of the wound that too many Americans in power leave unaddressed.
The mistake is thinking that the wound is people like King. Sure, he needs to go for reasons aforementioned. But in truth, he has long been known as one of the most inconsequential and ineffective legislators in Congress. He is sound and fury. What worries me is the system that he protects with his presence and his rhetoric.
I’m tired of seeing black justice delivered in the hereafter. I’m sick of seeing apologies delivered well after the fact, of sanctions and slaps delivered too lightly upon the wrists of people who remain in positions of power. A mea culpa is appreciated, but it is incense in a cow patch. The stink overpowers it. The policies and practices are what have to change. The recognition that the problem is systemic, not a collection of individual stories and grievances, is essential to creating an America that no one should have to apologize for.