How GOP’s candidates of color navigate a party that downplays racism

GOP Presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaking at a rally in Iowa. PHOTO: Twitter (X) @NikkiHaley

NEOLA, Iowa – Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s lone Black Republican, tells voters in early voting states that he’s been called the n-word by some critics on the left, who deride him as a token for rejecting their conception of a widely racist America.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian American and the first woman of color to lead her state, warns primary voters that focusing on racial division amounts to nothing more than “woke self-loathing.”

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who is also Indian American, decries the corrosive “cult of racial woke-ism,” which he says turns those who dissent from an accepted racial orthodoxy into “pariahs in your own community.”

The three politicians are among a record six minorities seeking the Republican nomination for president, and are often held up by party leaders as dynamic figures who can expand the GOP’s appeal in a more pluralistic America.

Junior South Carolina Senator Tim Scott greets the crowd during Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s Annual Roast and Ride fundraiser. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Christopher Smith.

But as they address almost entirely White audiences in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, they also echo a complaint made mostly by White conservatives – that the country has focused too heavily on systemic racism. It’s a view that puts them sharply at odds with many other Americans, including most people of color, and showcases the challenge of being a minority candidate seeking to lead a party that downplays the pervasiveness of racial discrimination.

The party’s two top-polling candidates, who are White, have set the tone. The ascent of former president Donald Trump was powered in part by racial grievance and, at times, his own racist rhetoric. He warned of “criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” migrating from Mexico, banned people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, attacked a federal judge of Mexican ancestry and equivocated on condemning a rally of white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is second in most primary polls, has declared a “war on woke” and doubled down on his support for a Florida school curriculum that suggests enslaved people sometimes benefited from their subjugation by learning useful skills.

The only Republican candidate who is publicly criticizing his party’s approach on race is former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who is Black. Hurd has taken issue in particular with DeSantis, calling Florida’s teaching guidelines a distortion of history.

In an interview, Hurd said that while he disagrees with classroom teaching that divides people, Republicans can’t afford to promote a historical fiction if they want to appeal to a wider swath of America. “Yes, slavery happened. Jim Crow happened. It had an impact on our society,” he said. “Reconstruction had an impact on society, and we should be teaching it, and it’s important. It’s important for our kids and adults to learn and understand.”

Scott also recently took on DeSantis over the guidelines. “There is no silver lining . . . in slavery,” he told reporters in Ankeny, Iowa. “What slavery was really about [was] separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating. So, I would hope that every person in our country – and certainly running for president – would appreciate that.”

But the overall rhetoric of most of the GOP candidates reflects a view espoused by many Republican leaders and voters that America has fundamentally solved its racial problems. In a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 24 percent of Republicans said racism against Blacks was a “big problem,” while 69 percent said it was either a small problem or none at all.

Republican candidate Larry Elder reinforced that view in a recent campaign appearance in Neola, Iowa. “I want to deal with the lie Democrats push and push and push, and that is that America is systemically racist,” said Elder, a conservative radio host, shortly after joking that he is sometimes called “the Black face of white supremacy.”

Minutes into his stump speech, he had ticked through several subjects intertwined with what critics call White grievance, including welfare programs and slavery reparations. Elder used the word “racist” roughly a half-dozen times, mostly to minimize the role race plays in American society. His disquisition was interrupted by bursts of applause and a few audience members shouting, “Thank you.”

There is a large body of evidence on the disparities in American society.

Black, Native and Hispanic infants have “markedly higher mortality rates” than babies born to White women, according to the National Institutes of Health. Black preschoolers are more likely to be disciplined than their White playmates. Black and Hispanic elementary schoolchildren generally have poorer reading skills than White children, even when controlled for socioeconomic status, a gap that widens as students get older.

Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted and receive tougher prison sentences, according to a Harvard study, and conversely less likely to have a college degree. The median Black family has less wealth than the median White family. And studies show Black Americans are more likely to die of cancer, heart disease and, more recently, covid.

Against this backdrop, President Biden and other Democrats contend that the U.S. has a long way to go. The party has pushed such issues as voting rights and criminal justice reform, though it has struggled to make progress on them. And Democrats often cite barrier-breaking Black leaders – including Vice President Harris, former president Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson – as examples of the change their party can bring.

The Republican candidates generally agree that individuals can be racist, sometimes recounting their own experience with bigotry, but say the basic systems undergirding American life have become largely race-blind. Arguments to the contrary, they add, are an effort to play politics by pitting Americans of different backgrounds against each other.

Candidates making that argument include Scott, who has talked of facing traffic stops due to his skin color, and Haley, who highlights her unique upbringing in the rural South.

“We weren’t White enough to be White. We weren’t Black enough to be Black,” Haley often says of her experience as the only Indian girl growing up in Bamberg, S.C., where she said she was bullied because of her race.

But while highlighting her own efforts to hurdle racial and gender bias, Haley argues that her success proves they are not major barriers in today’s America. “Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history: America is not a racist country,” she says in her stump speech.

For White and non-White GOP candidates alike, attacks on “woke” attitudes have become a go-to way of saying that Democrats’ embrace of Black and LGBTQ+ priorities defies common sense.

That message is delivered with gusto by the GOP candidates of color now stumping through Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the party’s fist nominating caucus and primary respectively. In both states, nine of every 10 people are White.

In a recent ad, Scott charged that “the radical left is indoctrinating our children, teaching CRT instead of ABC,” a reference to critical race theory, which contends that bias is inherent in many parts of society. Scott often cites what he calls the “culture of grievance” and “victimhood” stoked by Democrats.

At a campaign appearance in Davenport, Iowa, Scott described the racism his grandfather faced growing up in South Carolina in the 1920s. But the progress America has made since then, Scott said, is precisely what shows how great the country is.

“I have watched with my very eyes, I have heard with my own ears, the story of America’s evolution – how far we have come in so little time,” Scott said. “But no one wants us to celebrate progress in America. The radical left wants us to apologize for being Americans.”

Eileen Sailer, a Republican voter who attended a Scott event in Sioux City, Iowa, said she loved his message. “I think he’s genuine, you know, very genuine and passionate about . . . it’s you that has to pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Don’t be a victim. I love that . . . I just don’t think people in Iowa are racist. I think they’re very accepting.”

The Republican candidates rarely mention the country’s diversifying population, though some do suggest a need to expand the reach of a party that has not won the popular vote in a presidential election since 2004.

Polls suggest the forceful downplaying of racism in America carries political risk. Just 8 percent of Black Americans say they agree with Republicans on policies involving racial minorities, while 55 percent agree with the Democrats and 35 percent with neither, according to a Pew Research Center poll in June. In Georgia, a key swing state, Biden won Black voters by 88 percent to 11 percent in 2020, likely providing the decisive margin.

Theodore Johnson, director of the Us@250 initiative at New America, said the GOP candidates’ arguments are aimed more at the Republican base than the electorate at large.

“I just think they want to win,” said Johnson, an expert on the intersection of race and politics. “The path to victory in the Republican primary, where probably 95 percent of primary voters are White and probably half of those, if not a little bit more, love Trump – you can’t show up to that crowd and say, ‘We need to do better on race’ and expect to be the presidential nominee.”

In interviews, some of the Republican candidates said Americans are opposed to liberals’ insistence on elevating racial identity above all else. “The Republican Party is the party of ideas, it’s a party of values, it’s a party of principles,” Elder said. “It’s not the party of race. It’s not the party of ethnicity.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, GOP candidate for President, speaking to the press on the issue of religion. PHOTO: Twitter post July 30, 2023, @VivekRamaswamy

Ramaswamy has written a book on anti-wokeness. On the biography page of his campaign website, the word “woke” appears almost as often as his name. Within the first minute of a speech in Iowa this spring, he decried the idea “that if you’re Black, you’re inherently disadvantaged, that if you’re White, you’re privileged.”

In an interview in May, Ramaswamy suggested his Indian background makes it possible for him to be more outspoken than White candidates on racial issues. “Look, I don’t like thinking of myself through identitarian boundaries or anything like that,” he said. “But I think that’s probably a practical fact of reality.”



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