How Republicans can recover their moral balance

Michael Gerson Syndicated Columnist
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
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On the theory that decency and sanity are rare enough these days that they should be recognized, let us praise Kay Coles James, the president of the Heritage Foundation.

James — the first African American and the first woman to head the conservative think tank — reacted to the “horrific and needless death” of George Floyd in Minneapolis by recalling the reality of racism in her own story, in a Facebook post that appeared directly after the killing.

“When your family has had crosses burned on their front lawns,” she said, “ when your own children have been stopped and harassed by police because they were driving through a white neighborhood … when you sit up at night with all the normal fears any parent would have when their kids are out, but have to add to that worry that they may not make it home just because they are Black males.”

In a column that appeared (ironically) at, James asked, “How many more black people must die, and how many more times will statements of sympathy have to be issued? ... How many more committees will have to be formed until America admits that racism is still a problem in this country? ... It’s time America takes responsibility and expands human flourishing to all of its citizens — not just the majority of them.”

How did Tucker Carlson of Fox News react to this plea? Did he listen respectfully to the voice of a different experience? Of course not. Carlson attacked James’ article as a “long scream denouncing America as an irredeemably racist nation” and urged his listeners to stop sending funds to Heritage. This is what happens when the main media platform of American conservatism is dominated by bigotry.

James felt compelled to make her points because she is a woman of faith and character. For a glimpse of what the total absence of faith and character looks like, see the Republican Party of Texas. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, a dozen elected leaders of the GOP wrote or retweeted racist memes and conspiracy theories. Comal County Republican Party Chair Sue Gafford Piner propagated the idea that philanthropist George Soros is funding a race war. Bexar County GOP Chair Cynthia Brehm suggested that Floyd’s death was staged to hurt President Trump’s reelection chances. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller wrote that the civil-rights protesters are “domestic terrorists who were organized and paid for by George Soros.”

This is not the rejection of “political correctness”; it is the success of white supremacy in the Texas Republican Party. The GOP, in many places, has become an institution where leaders are elevated and groomed for cruelty and bigotry. This is what happens when the president of the United States normalizes racism and mainstreams ideological madness.

These habits of prejudice took root easily in the GOP, indicating a broad, preexisting disposition. If Republicans are ever to recover their moral balance, they will need to dispose of three pervasive assumptions.

The first is the assumption of rough equality — the belief that most racial prejudice was addressed by the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and, phew, aren’t we glad that all is over with. In this view, every abuser of rights is dismissed as one of a few bad apples - even when it is clear that some institutions (say, police forces or the Trump GOP) are engaged in the mass production of rotting fruit.

The second is the assumption of personal innocence — the belief that because an individual is not personally at fault for segregation, redlining and police abuses, he or she is not obligated to address their legacy. This amounts to a selfish rejection of the common good, as well as a denial of the Golden Rule.

The third is the assumption of historical irrelevance — the belief that if subjugation did not take place this morning, it is morally extraneous. This is a particularly absurd view for conservatives, given their traditional belief that the past has a powerful hold on the present. For most of American history, deeply unjust laws meant that police enforced an oppressive social order, sometimes through tactics of terror. This has left habits in many police departments and scars in many communities. And this does not even start to cover the legacy of stolen labor, educational inequality and disenfranchisement.

There are many horrors in American racial history, but also some powerful inspiration. It is extraordinary that a group of people who came to our country in chains came to understand the essence of Christianity and the essence of our country far better than their oppressors. You might even call it providential. And this should lead to an enduring lesson: America often sees itself more clearly through the eyes of the harassed and oppressed.