On Thursday, many in the Netherlands and across Europe breathed a sigh of relief in an election that saw the defeat of Geert Wilders, who ran a populist campaign hoping to take the government back from the so-called 'out-of-touch elites' in charge. But while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte staved off a challenge from Wilders, it would be a mistake to underestimate how influential his opponent has been — not just at home, but also, curiously enough, in America.
Earlier this week, U.S. Rep Steve King of Iowa came under fire for a comment he made on Twitter in which he supported Wilders’ xenophobic platform. This isn’t the first time King has endorsed white supremacist sentiments.
For instance, in June, he stated that whites have contributed more to society than any other “subgroup” of people. He also introduced a bill to defund the plan to place Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, and he proudly displays a Confederate flag on his office desk.
Needless to say, King’s support for Wilders isn’t that unexpected. What’s surprising, however, is that there has been relative silence from his political colleagues.
Aside from the Iowa GOP chair and U.S. Rep Carlos Curbelo of Florida, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, there’s been virtually no response from the Republican Party. Democrats, predictably, have responded with considerable force - aptly terming King's words as “nativist,” “racist,” and “deeply disturbing.”Certainly nothing of note from President Donald Trump or congressional leaders. Schooling, media and popular discourse erase the image of people of color from policy unless they are problematized or viewed as deficient.
Like most racist and white nationalist diatribes, King’s tweet and subsequent defense of “Western civilization” is rife with inaccuracies and falsehoods. He neglects to mention, for instance, that the numeric system that we use is in fact Hindu-Arabic in origin. Oddly, for a self-avowed constitutionalist, he also does not seem to know that the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi is the basis for many constitutional democracies. Even more curious is King’s lack of knowledge that the U.S. Constitution was influenced by that of the Iroquois Confederacy, which existed from the 16th century and was cited by Benjamin Franklin as a model for the colonies in 1754.
King’s ignorance in the face of facts speaks to the void in his educational experience. For years, Eurocentric educational programming has diminished the contributions of nonwhite people to civilization broadly and American history in particular. These embarrassing displays of ignorance only highlight the significance of bringing ethnic studies to public schools and, equally importantly, ensuring that the contributions of people of color and Native Americans are infused into all history, government and social science courses. In fact, at a time when many of King’s political allies are attacking ethnic studies, the empirical evidence actually suggests that students who take ethnic studies courses are more likely to graduate from high school and perform better on standardized tests.
America’s motto, e pluribus unum, actively embraces diversity and pluralism. Our highest ideals, however, often exist parallel to our greatest shortcomings. If we’re unwilling to call out ignorance, lies and misinformation as precisely as possible and fail to hold those who espouse them to account, we will simply end up with more Steve Kings, only more emboldened. Expanding curricular offerings and ensuring that the roles of people of color are prominently and accurately depicted, both in K-12 and higher education, are the greatest defense against knowledge deficits displayed by King and his endorsers.
But perhaps the relative indifference to King’s comments is the most troubling aspect of this entire episode. White supremacists have been emboldened of late: While there has been a muted response from King’s political allies, the endorsers of his comments include former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke and infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer. We should all fully expect King to politically survive this episode. Right wing pundits will painfully parse the “meaning” of his words and make false equivalencies from the left, and this too will blow over.
But it’s precisely this sort of normalization of King’s comments that allows white supremacy to persist. Not just in the U.S., but across Europe and worldwide.
There should be outrage and a clear message from political leaders that comments like King’s and Wilder’s disqualify them from the business of policymaking and lawmaking. They enact laws and policies that perpetuate the oppression of people of color, while those who stand silent tacitly endorse his white nationalism. This is the wrong approach. America, in particular, needs a path that is racially encompassing and recognizes the value that all races played in shaping our great country.
And if France and Germany, who are facing populist candidates later this year, are feeling relieved by Wilder's loss, they should think harder.
Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational administration at The University of Texas at Austin.