The Iowa Representative praises white supremacy and raises troubling questions about who gets a pass for bigoted statements in politics.
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By Ellen McGirt
Updated: January 14, 2019 1:08 PM ET

I’d like to begin with three metaphorical firestorms that occurred while your intrepid columnist was digging out of the literal snowstorm that blanketed the Midwest over the weekend.

The first came courtesy of Rep. Steve King [R-Iowa], who drew public ire for a head-scratcher of a comment he made to the New York Times last Thursday, in which he yearned for the simpler times when he could say racist things and not be called a racist.

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”

How indeed?

The firestorm created by the nine-term Congressman’s remarks included censure talk from several Democratic colleagues and a call to do better from Rep. Tim Scott [R-SC]. “When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” he said in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post. “Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism—it is because of our silence when things like this are said.”

On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled that King was in some sort of trouble, maybe? “We’ll see what we do about Steve King, but nonetheless nothing is shocking anymore, right?” Pelosi [D-Calif] said to reporters. “The new normal around here is to praise white nationalism as something that shouldn’t be shunned.”

This feels like the old normal to me.

Also on Friday, this time in Texas, the Tarrant County Republican party members held a vote to remove one of their appointed vice chairs, a trauma surgeon and city council member named Dr. Shahid Shafi. His offense? He’s Muslim.

The lead-up to the controversial vote was predictably ugly. In multiple posts to her Facebook account, Republican precinct chair Dorrie O’Brien suggested that Shafi has terrorist ties and follows Sharia law. “We don’t think he’s suitable as a practicing Muslim to be chair because he’d be the representative for All Republicans in Tarrant County, and not ALL Republicans in Tarrant County think Islam is safe or acceptable,” she wrote.

Laudably, prominent Texas Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz publicly criticized the effort to remove him. And yet the vote was 139 to 49 in favor of keeping Shafi.

“As we struggled through the last few months, it would have been easy for me to quit, but I stayed on to fight,” he told reporters after the vote. “We were fighting for religious freedom … and today we have come out victorious.”

We’ll see.

The last, and I’ll argue related, firestorm happened when producer Ben Mitchell of CBS News posted a photo on Twitter of the reporting team assigned to cover the 2020 election cycle. While the team of twelve were more diverse than you might expect, there was not one African American journalist.

The post became the flashpoint for an important discussion (and a lot of salty talk) about diversity in journalism and the duty to inform the public about what words and deeds actually mean by people who actually understand them.

It is not possible to parse the dynamics informing political life in the U.S. without employing people who have a full understanding of race—which includes the black experience in America. This is not a pick-up baseball game, one underrepresented minority can’t sub in for someone else. I’d argue there are few elements more fundamental to American political history than race.

That Rep. King has been saying racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic and insulting things for a very long time is not news.

Neither is the fact that he’s continually given a pass by the public and his peers after he apologizes or claims that he was taken out of context, as he did for his most recent comments. “The American public has become well-acquainted with the ‘Groundhog Day’ parameters of the Steve King news cycle,” says The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson.

It’s the old normal at work.

As political offices are increasingly being filled by new people from underrepresented communities, the need is particularly keen. Their work needs to be evaluated properly and proportionately.

Until then, the Rep. Kings of the world (who can be found in any party, of course) will shrug along with their voters and keep on keeping on. Even people who consider themselves allies, like liberal white candidates, inadvertently dumb themselves down when addressing black voters. Blind spots necessarily increase the likelihood that public servants will miss huge opportunities to solve the enormous problems facing all of us.

Either you believe in the value of diversity, or you don’t.

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