By Lee A. Daniels
George Curry Media Columnist
Remember when the conventional wisdom was that Jeb Bush was “the smart one” of the Bush brothers and would effortlessly steamroller his competitors on the way to 2016? Well, the political outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have all crashed the GOP establishment’s big dance, turning those predictions into fodder for jokesters and pushing Bush down to the single digits in the polls.
That astonishing collapse no doubt partly explains Bush’s desperate attempts of recent weeks to improve his hard-right credentials – for example, his callous “stuff happens” response to the nation’s latest mass killing, the slaughter at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College as a signal of his opposition to any meaningful gun-control legislation.
And then, there are his two comments that revealed his – and his party’s – decades-long callousness toward Black Americans. At an October 8 Republican forum in Iowa, Bush declared he was against re-instituting the key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down two years ago by the Supreme Court’s Republican bloc because there’s no need for imposing “regulations on top of states as though we’re living in 1960.”
In fact, Republican-driven actions in state after state where Republicans dominate the state legislatures have shown unmistakably that the danger to Blacks’ right to vote is greater than at any time since the 1965 Act was passed. But then, it may be that Bush doesn’t believe Blacks should be allowed to vote at all – unless they vote Republican. After all, Bush did say at a late September campaign event in South Carolina in response to a question about his appealing to Black voters: “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting – that says you can achieve earned success.”
In other words, Jeb Bush believes Blacks vote Democratic not because, first, they’re adhering to their duty as American citizens and, following the time-honored American political tradition, supporting the party that they feel both serves their own interests and promotes their view of what American society should be.
No, to Jeb Bush, Black voters, benefiting from “unearned success,” are stupid, shiftless and corrupt.
In repeating the charge the defeated Mitt Romney had made after he lost the 2012 election to President Obama, Bush demonstrated how important the notion that Blacks want something for nothing is to people who make up the Republican Party.
But the importance of Bush’s remark – revealing an attitude that’s been a hallmark of White-racist belief since the Reconstruction era – goes even deeper because it’s the latest example of a powerful dynamic of American life: the continual dead-ending of Black respectability politics.
Put simply, Black respectability politics is just another name for the old cardinal command all Black Americans striving for achievement have always had drummed into them: behave as if you represent the entire mass of African-Americans – because you do.
But, as Barack Obama’s tenure as the nation’s first Black president has underscored, there’s a multi-layered trick to that White-racism-imposed burden that quickly limits the value of being “a credit to your race.”
For one thing, racism in many individuals has always been impervious to logic. Secondly, some Whites have always practiced a “pragmatic racism” or situational race baiting for the financial, political, or social advantage they think they’ll gain from it. And, thirdly, the dramatic breakthroughs Blacks make that expand racial tolerance have always made some Whites cling ever more tightly to their White-supremacist biases.
Of course, one purpose of the oft-repeated conservative Big Lie Jeb Bush repeated is to obscure that getting “free stuff” from the government has always been the foundation of the superior status Whites have enjoyed in American society: One need only look at the tax proposals now proposed by Bush and the other Republican candidates to see how they continue the conservative orthodoxy of using government to funnel “free stuff” in the form of outrageous tax cuts and tax deductions to the wealthiest – which means, of course, the whitest – bloc of Americans.
And a second purpose of that Bush/conservative view is to bury the record of “smart politics” Black voters have always played and began to play with greater intensity following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One can draw a straight line from that landmark act to the massive Black voter turnout that buoyed President Obama’s two election victories.
In other words, Jeb Bush’s Big Lie shows why Black respectability politics periodically reaches a dead end. It’s because White respectability politics – that is, Whites’ commitment to equal opportunity across the color line – periodically loses steam.
That’s really what the 2016 campaign is all about: Will the tradition of exclusion, alive and tawdry as ever in the Republican Party, succeed in stifling the claims of Americans of color, gays and lesbians and White women as well as Blacks for the full measure of their citizenship rights?
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com