We were going to end up here eventually. A major story involving subjugated people of color was bound to become a conversation about offending privileged white folks. Chief White House bigot Stephen Miller and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – who is seemingly both a family separation skeptic and the administration’s most conspicuous supporter of the policy – caught some hell while dining at Mexican restaurants, of all places. This suddenly became a scandal, as if those engaged in the service of explicitly racist public policy should expect to remain welcome in polite society. As if the architects and defenders of systemic child abduction and alleged abuse shouldn’t expect to pay a social price for it.
White nationalism is expensive. It should probably cost even more, considering how much some profit from it. I don’t mean merely in the philosophical sense, as far as America selling its soul for government-sponsored bigotry. I mean it literally, from the billions spent to maintain mass incarceration, to the tourism lost to Muslim travel bans, or the $775 nightly charge to hold an immigrant child against her or his will in “tent cities,” we should never forget that this White House and its base alike are paying a premium for the feeling of white safety and superiority. So if they’re willing to stick taxpayers with the bill to indulge their cultural resentment, why should we be silent and let them eat cake?
The Democrats could have said as much and ignored this mess, even after Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, quietly informed White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that she wasn’t welcome. Democratic leaders should have figured out by now how to navigate these moments: Ignore and perhaps even lampoon the fake outrage coming from the right, then keep the focus on what matters – in this case, the wanton destruction of immigrant families on orders from the president of the United States.
But few things provoke an uproar in Washington quite like the apparent absence of decorum. It’s far easier for pundits and politicos to relate to impolite treatment in a restaurant than to imagine government agents stealing your breastfeeding infant or locking your toddler in a cage. Even as voters in primaries nationwide prove to the DNC that they want fresh blood that grasps the urgency of the Trump crisis – we see you, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi fail to listen. Instead, they revert to insipid defenses of good manners when the situation calls for anything but.
That was most evident after Rep. Maxine Waters called for more activism. The longtime Southern California congresswoman has embodied the left’s fire in the Trump era as well as anyone on Capitol Hill, and understands that the only civility Trump respects is acquiescence. “For these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend him” as family separation horror stories flood the news, she said, “they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop at a department store. The people are going to turn on them. They’re going to protest, and they’re going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they’re going to tell the president, ‘No, I can’t hang with you. This is wrong. This is unconscionable, and we can’t keep doing this to children.'”
Trump responded with an implicit threat against Waters. (Republicans would have us get used to the president and his minions behaving like thugs, but heaven forbid we make them feel bad about it.) Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was silent about Trump’s history of inciting violence and his Republican colleague Steve King sharing literal Nazi propaganda on Twitter earlier this month, demanded that Waters apologize. Pelosi followed suit, tweeting that “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed with Pelosi: “No one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American,” he said. “The president’s tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated by organized, well informed and passionate advocacy.” His statement was echoed by ex-presidential advisers David Axelrod and Paul Begala. President Obama’s former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, went even further. “The history in our country of denying people access to restaurants, to water fountains and even bathrooms is too raw, too real,” he tweeted. “We can’t keep dividing,” as if accountability is somehow alienating. It wasn’t a surprise that Republicans would act as if Sanders had been persecuted at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the Jim Crow South, but for Democrats to join in that false equivalence in attacking one of their own?
Democrats who condemned Waters helped draw a straight line from caging children to jeering administration officials, from “Whites Only” to the Red Hen. Though Rep. Elijah Cummings also said the restaurant should have served Sanders, it was impossible to ignore how the concern trolling over the Red Hen incident came almost universally from white people. The Washington Post editorial board, all white save for one member, argued on Sunday that we should allow folks like Sanders, Nielsen and Miller to eat in peace. We’re witnessing our government commit a humanitarian atrocity, and yet they have us talking about dinner.
This is capitulation dressed as civility. It called to mind the cautious submission that Martin Luther King Jr. described in the 1963 letter he wrote while jailed in Birmingham after leading a civil rights march without a permit. Describing white moderates as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom,” King wrote they were “more devoted to order than to justice.” He added, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
All protest is performative. Dramatic actions, even shaming, can be pathways to progress. Calling out government officials for doing morally unconscionable things should never be equated with sinking to Trump’s level. It is actually one of our most sacred duties as citizens in a democracy. We should never indulge in the fiction that handing out unearned respect will help us build an America where valor is prized over vitriol, one where merely calling to better angels can extinguish the hells of our own devising. This is a country that is not sinking toward some unknown abyss, but regressing to what was once the norm. If I had any faith that the majority of Democrats cared more about justice than they do about norms, I’d be more optimistic.
I don’t know if this constitutionally protected incivility will make things better, or if it’s the only way to go. On Tuesday night, a federal judge put a hold on family separation and ordered the reunification of more than 2,000 children with their families within 30 days. This administration appears to have no blueprint to make that happen, so this will continue to be a story. As will the new Supreme Court nomination battle sure to erupt in the wake of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. This country is setting up internment camps and is poised to have a regressive judicial branch for at least a generation. I refuse to become preoccupied with comforting those who are invested in wickedness, not that I’m normally inclined to. Being pressured or asked to leave a restaurant is a small cost for the evil that people like Nielsen, Miller and Sanders are defending. If this is a sample of what they can expect to experience in polite society for jailing thousands of brown kids, I would argue they are getting white supremacy on the cheap.