Systemic racism is typically a silent villain. We see it working its way through the brains of children affected by lead poisoning in underserved communities, or limiting their potentials with terrible educations in lousy schools. Redlining and wealth disparities rarely make a sound. But this nation certainly was built upon a creaky foundation of bigotry and discrimination. And occasionally, it squeaks loudly enough enough for us to hear it.
In New York City on Tuesday morning, that racism was loud and clear when the judge’s gavel closed the court proceedings on the Eric Garner case, after Attorney General William Barr overruled his own Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to decline all charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner in 2014. The official line is that prosecutors in New York’s DOJ division worried about proving intent, as if it would have been difficult to make a case that a man who continues applying an illegal chokehold to an unarmed man repeatedly pleading “I can’t breathe” is a mountain they just couldn’t climb. In that case, there are two instances of systemic racism at work: an Attorney General allied with a politically conservative president who games that system to let another cop off for killing a black man, and the rule written into our laws that gives him the excuse, saying the killing had to be intentional for the punishment to be prosecutable.
Another written rule, much less consequential, attracted much more attention later that day in Washington because the people involved are more famous and more white, and the racism being discussed was spoken and therefore, seemingly more urgent for Americans to address.
One after the other, House Democrats paraded to the microphone to decry President Trump’s tweets on Sunday directed at four unnamed House members — though it was easy to discern that he was aiming at Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, all women and none of them white. Had Trump actually used the words “go back to Africa,” it wouldn’t have been that much more racist. But yet the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was briefly prohibited from speaking at all on the House floor for calling the tweets what they were.
Pelosi, who rushed to defend the four targeted Congresswomen despite their recent quarrels, said on the House floor that “these comments from the White House are disgraceful and disgusting, and those comments are racist.” She added that “Every member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us to condemn the president’s racist tweets.” Soon thereafter, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, a Republican who had obviously read his playbook, invoked a rarely used procedure to have her remarks stricken from the House record. I didn’t witness it, but as a football fan, I shivered when I saw the hour’s delay likened to the most nightmarish NFL official’s replay deliberation one can imagine. Ultimately, her words were determined to be out of order, but a vote to remove her words from the record failed.
There are explainers galore to tell you why Pelosi ran afoul of the rules, and I won’t go into that in depth here. Briefly, it is the fault of our third president, and the key is why is it wrong and how that fits into our current politics.
In Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice that he published in 1801, he held onto a particularly British tenet: don’t speak irreverently or seditiously of the King. In America’s case, it’s a bit looser, and therefore a bit more open to poor interpretation. In partisan hands, the rule becomes a guide for silencing any criticism for the president. “It is very material that order, decency, and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body,” wrote Sally Hemings’ rapist in his manual of parliamentary procedure.
I note that fact about Jefferson not to slander him, but to tell the truth. We should have to do so about our presidents because they are presidents, not kings. Jefferson was a man of inherent contradictions. He was a Founding Father and a slaveholder who possessed uncommon intelligence yet enslaved 607 people. Per a 2018 report by his own University of Virginia, Jefferson believed that ending slavery, which was a necessary evil in his eyes, would result in a race war and that the only way to accomplish it effectively would be to expel every black person from the United States. If you don’t like it, leave it, like Trump said.
Jefferson is dead, though, and it isn’t his fault that no one thought in the centuries since to change this idiotic rule that all but insists that House members, elected to put a check on the presidency, instead prostrate themselves before it. Joe Biden made a particularly hilarious remark about Trump in an attempt to criticize him the other day, saying that he was the “most openly racist” president in history, which is surely news to Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. There have been heads of state worth of criticism as racists, from the House floor most of all. The rule codifies the very “civility” that so many of our politicians — particularly on the right, where the word has become code for “stop talking about the identity-based discrimination that the Republican Party perpetuates” — today plead for into the very practice of government, all in the interest of expediting business and eliminating unpleasantness. And it as we saw on Tuesday, it insulates racists from criticism in the hopes of keeping things quiet.
Such is the way with racist systems and structures: they are silent until they are not. Police brutality is a silent threat until it shows up behind your car with flashing lights or perhaps around your neck with a nightstick, and then it is too late. That officer, entering the academy, may not even realize how much the deck is stacked in his favor. And when a president comes onto the scene and uses one of the original racist hits against four Congresswomen of color, clearly tenderizing them for further abuse before his flock, he may not even know how many structures are in place to protect him from criticism or questioning. Not even someone as privileged as Trump may have understood how lucky he was.
Ultimately, though, the Democrats prevailed. They passed, with limited Republican help, New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski’s resolution condemning Trump, several times in writing, for his racism, the first such action in more than 100 years. And the Washington Post reported Trump’s slurs can be used against him in litigation to block his policies. Still, it remains sadly ironic to see a Republican Party suddenly so dedicated to procedure to protect the feelings of a president who thinks nothing of violating the rule of law, to say nothing of what might be considered the conscience of the nation as he continues to have his administration commit crimes against humanity in the name of immigration enforcement.
I don’t think Trump cares one bit if any of his policies are held up because of a tweet he sends. They are meant to help him get re-elected, and we have seen it work once already. And what Tuesday reminded us is to watch out for other systems in place to help protect him from the very House members charged with keeping him in check.