In a move sure to surprise no one who has even glanced at politics in the last half century, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the machine dedicated to getting GOP members elected to the House of Representatives, tried to be slick about its racist desperation for power by reportedly darkening the skin of Colin Kaepernick in a fundraising email that went out Wednesday, Yahoo News reports.
Kaepernick, you’ll recall, is the now black-balled former NFL quarterback who took a knee back in 2016 during the national anthem in order to shine a spotlight on police brutality. In doing so, as ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant details in his sweeping book The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, Kaepernick joined a long tradition in sports. For decades, black athletes have used their megaphones to issue sometimes tame disapproval (in the case of Kaepernick) and sometimes merciless criticism (see Muhammad Ali) of American racism.
It’s worth remembering that the tactic being used here is as old as it is sinister. The breadcrumbs lead all the way back to 1865. As historian Carol Anderson shows in her brilliant history White Rage, every era since Reconstruction, which saw a brief burst of black political life, has seen the ruling elite fan the flames of white resentment for political gain. It has followed even the mildest expressions of black progress and demands for basic human dignity. And it is a weapon that has been unloaded, though far more frequently and aggressively by modern Republicans, from the commanding heights of both major parties.
The version we now see, where the suited goons of Republican campaigns summon ideas about black criminality, irresponsibility, and all around treachery to the surface without explicitly calling it that, made its first splash with President Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” to woo panicked racists away from the Democratic Party. And that splash was followed by a flood. There were the “welfare queens” and “Willie Horton’s” and “superpredators” to name just a few of the most notorious examples.
The architects behind the strategy often made their goals plain. As Ed Kilgor of New York Magazine has pointed out, the godfather of the Southern Strategy, Kevin Phillips, had this to say in a 1970 interview:
“…The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
Then there was strategist Lee Atwater, perhaps the most notorious of them all:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N**ger, n**ger, n**ger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n**ger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
The strategy has a second but no less potent impact in American political and economic life. As has been widely argued by scholars and thinkers, white political and business interests have used racism as a powerful tool for blocking working-class black and white people from joining forces to dethrone them and bring about a fairer distribution of power and wealth.
There is a clear and unmistakable line here, running from the first days of black freedom to the present. The NRCC has and will continue to say that they didn’t do what they’ve been accused of doing. That they’d never walk in the powerful glow of racist backlash.
History says otherwise.
We should listen.