Some prominent Republicans are speaking out about race, expressing empathy for the challenges faced by black Americans, after a spate of racially tinged gun violence that saw two black men killed by police and retaliatory attacks by a black sniper that killed five Dallas police officers.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and one of his predecessors, Newt Gingrich, have argued for frank conversations about race, citing some hurdles unique to African-Americans.
“It’s important that we acknowledge … there are people in this country who believe that because of their color of their skin, they’re not as safe as everybody else,” Ryan said recently on CNN.
Gingrich, among the finalists to be Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick, said, it was “difficult” for white Americans to “appreciate how real” it is for black Americans to live in fear of a “situation where the police don’t respect you and you could easily get killed.”
The tone is not uniform among Republicans: Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who has long advocated strong police tactics, declared the Black Lives Matter movement — a response to police killings of black men — “inherently racist.” The real danger to young black men, Giuliani said, is “99 out of 100 times … other black kids, who are going to kill them.”
Additional killings of at least three police officers Sunday in Louisiana, where Alton Sterling had been killed by Baton Rouge police two weeks ago, could certainly test the new tenor.
But before Sunday’s shootings, at least, Giuliani’s take was an outlier in a week punctuated by a floor speech from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, one of two black men in the chamber and the only black Republican.
In deeply personal remarks, Scott, 50, told of years of being stopped by police — including seven times in one year after he was an elected official.
The senator recounted a white officer once calling him “boy.” Even recently, Scott recalled, a Capitol Hill policeman questioned the lapel pin issued only to senators. Scott said he was told: “The pin, I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID.”
Scott, who nevertheless praised American law enforcement, said he doesn’t know a black man of any age, social status or income level who hasn’t suffered the “loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops.” And he said that pales in comparison to what Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling and others faced as they died at the hands of police.
The range of GOP reactions represents a break from the usual partisan divide after previous police-involved killings or other acts of gun violence, with Democrats criticizing police brutality and calling for stricter gun regulations and Republicans championing law-and-order while generally defending gun rights and police, while avoiding mentions of race.
After Sterling, Castile and the Dallas attacks, something was different. Yet rhetorical shifts won’t necessarily break the logjams on equally sensitive public policy arguments over gun laws, economic inequality and police behavior.
Ryan has not granted Democratic demands for votes on new gun regulations, specifically an expansion of background checks and proposals to block gun purchases by individuals on certain terrorist watch lists. But in an agreement with the Congressional Black Caucus, the speaker appointed a bipartisan panel to suggest ways to improve police relationships with their communities.
Most Republicans haven’t gone as far as Democrats in putting black Americans’ frustrations in the wider context of economic struggle.
Still, Matt Moore, the South Carolina Republican Party chairman and one of Scott’s constituents, said the chilling videos of Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths — along with live televised images of the Dallas sniper attacks during peaceful protests against police violence — have created a new sense of empathy in the GOP.
“Empathy is just seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and we already experienced that in South Carolina,” Moore said. He cited the April 2015 killing of Walter Scott, a black man, by a white North Charleston police office, and the June 2015 massacre in which a white gunman killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston.
The latter event sparked Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and white South Carolina lawmakers to lower the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds. “That shows people can change,” Moore said, adding that he hopes more Republicans “will look at all these issues comprehensively, from a social, economic and personal perspective.”
GOP pollster Whit Ayres said the new dynamics could conceivably lead to speedier action on various criminal justice overhauls pending in Congress. Sentencing changes — a break from former sentencing guidelines, particularly for nonviolent offenses — already have moved through several statehouses in recent years.
Still, Moore and Ayres agreed, the hardest divide to breach will be on guns, where the Republican base and most GOP officials oppose any new restrictions on access to weapons. Conservatives are much more likely than other voters to make voting decisions based on gun policy, Ayres said.
“Intensity matters in politics, and that issue is exhibit A,” he said.