raceAhead: The Trouble With Steve King

January 14, 2019, 6:08 PM UTC
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 26: Rep. Steve King (R-IA) questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Trump administration is expected to set the fiscal year 2018 refugee ceiling at 45,000, down from the previous ceiling at 50,000. It would be the lowest refugee ceiling since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer—Getty Images

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.

On Point

Los Angeles teachers set to go on strikeSome 480,000 public school students will be affected, many of them are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The demands of the teachers echo those of others who staged similar successful protests last year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and North Carolina: Higher wages, more support staff, smaller class sizes and, well, respect. It’s also part of a larger trend. There were seven major work stoppages (more than 1,000 workers) in 2017 alone, according to the most recent government figures available, which included retail workers and fast-food employees demanding a living wage and better control over their schedules.CBS News

CEO Geisha Williams steps down at PG&E
Williams, who made history in 2017 when she became the first Latina CEO in the history of the Fortune 500, has been replaced, the company announced last night. Shortly after she became CEO, a series of fires that spread through California wine country were determined to be due to PG&E faulty equipment. After last November’s tragic Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif, the company disclosed that it had suffered equipment issues at the fire’s origin point. PG&E is now teetering toward bankruptcy, and its debt has been reduced to junk status. More news is expected today.
Mercury News

Bayard Rustin: “[I]t was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality”
Rustin barely gets the credit he deserves for his work in the civil rights movement as it is; the adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lead organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, and yet he is not widely known. Rustin was also gay, a fact which he was unwilling to hide at the time, even though King both feared for Rustin’s safety and was pressured by other black leaders to remove him from visible leadership. Rustin talks about this history in a previously unaired audio interview with the Washington Blade in the mid-1980s, which was just released in an episode of the podcast Making Gay HistoryIt gets even more poignant: The audio was released by Rustin’s long-time partner Walter Naegle. Because they were unable to marry, Rustin adopted the much younger Naegle to add legal protection to their relationship. The two were together for a decade until Rustin's death in 1987.

Future architects of color, we got you
The Architects Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to creating a more inclusive future for the profession by attracting and supporting a new generation of architects from a wide variety of backgrounds. To that end, they offer the Diversity Advancement Scholarship, multi-year scholarships up to $20,000, to fund accredited undergrad or graduate study. Proof positive 1968 was a magical year: The Diversity Advancement Scholarship was created in 1970 with an initial grant from the Ford Foundation after civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr. challenged architects in 1968 to do better. If this is for you, get on it! Deadline is January 16.
Architects Foundation


The Woke Leader

For Esmé, with love and schizophrenia
Fiction writer and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang is an extraordinary voice; there are few writers who have addressed living with mental and chronic illness—schizoaffective disorder and late-stage Lyme disease, in her case—with such immediacy and grace. “I live with the constant fear of a relapse or a recurrence of these things,” she tells book reviewer Laura Goode. Wang won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize in 2016, but the true prize was this new book of essays called The Collected Schizophrenias, published by Graywolf Press and due out early in February. Goode finds brilliance in the way Wang writes about and through pain. “'Perdition Days' begins with the declaration, ‘I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead.’” That she allows her audience to witness this, “emerges as an arresting act of both craft and courage.”
Publisher's Weekly

What does it mean to be an Africanist?
We now spend a great deal of time making sure that panels at conferences are balanced by way of a diverse array of experts. But Rasna Warah, an author and freelance journalist, points out a glaring problem with conferences on “Africanist” themes. The Africanist discipline is very much a domain of white and male academicians, a form of gentrification with troubling implications, she argues. “The marginalization…of African scholars from the field of African studies has led to an absence of Africans from public discussions and intellectual debates.” Since most important convenings happen in North American or European venues, many Africa-based scholars also have trouble obtaining visas. “The other disturbing reality is that African scholars who do not wish to be “Africanists’ and who would like to focus their research on countries or regions outside the African continent are even less likely to be taken seriously.”
The East African Review

Is sunscreen racist?
It’s an odd conceit for a story about skin cancer, sure, until you realize that so much of what we know about medicine is a result of testing on just one category of human, always white, typically male. But it just might be that the health benefits of getting a little sun on one’s skin—blood pressure and cardiovascular, specifically—outweigh the risks of developing skin cancer from that same exposure. This story is about new data that suggests that the Vitamin D infusion that comes from the sun, and not supplements, is the reason why. “These seem like benefits everyone should be able to take advantage of,” says Outside’s Rowan Jacobsen. “But not all people process sunlight the same way. And the current U.S. sun-exposure guidelines were written for the whitest people on earth.” Way to represent, Rowan.
Outside Online


I don't want you leading that march on Washington, because you know I don't give a damn about what they say, but publicly I don't want to have to defend the draft dodging. I know you're a Quaker, but that's not what I'll have to defend. I'll have to defend draft dodging. I'll have to defend promiscuity. The question is never going to be homosexuality, it's going to be promiscuity and I can't defend that. And the fact is that you were a member of the Young Communist League. And I don't care what you say, I can't defend that.
Roy Wilkins of the NAACP to Bayard Rustin

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