Who’s the GOP kidding?
First, it was Juneteenth. Now it’s Willie O’Ree. Let’s take both and then try to see what the GOP is up to. Remember, seemingly from nowhere, all 50 GOP senators enthusiastically signed off on legislation that made Juneteenth an official national holiday. That’s the day that slaves in Texas got word and celebrated emancipation. The GOP senators back-patted themselves as if to say “See, we’re not the bigots that Blacks, Hispanics, and the Democrats relentlessly rip us for being.”
Now, all fifty GOP senators again made it unanimous and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to former NHL hockey player Willie O’Ree, the first Black to break the color barrier in the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 1958. And as with Jackie Robinson, there were the usual boos and taunts from fans and players. Now, six decades later, the GOP senators reach way back into time and suddenly discover that O’Ree deserved one of the nation’s highest civilian awards for his pioneering role in the sport. Again, they can whine that party members are wrongly miscast as racist villains.
It’s thrilling that Juneteenth gets the recognition it deserves. It’s equally thrilling that O’Ree is getting the much-deserved honor and is still alive, at age 85, to receive the award and for his family and friends to bask in the glow.
But sandwiched in between was the bold declaration from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that not one Republican senator would support HR1. That bill would expand voting rights protections that are under ferocious assault from GOP governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures with their wave of blatant voter suppression laws.
It is not an unfamiliar tactic by the GOP to back-pat itself for claiming not to be racist and assure that there is absolutely no racial animus or intent in any of its stances on issues that even remotely touch on racial or social justice.
Trump set the template for this shell game when he was called out in June 2018 for making hideous, over-the-top racist cracks about Nigeria and Haiti. A flustered Trump loudly declared “I am not a racist.” He didn’t pile on with the declaration that he was probably the least racist person around. It was just bluster, no more. The GOP leaders will quickly denounce a GOP leader for using the N-word or making racially derisive cracks. In recent years, the GOP has loudly distanced itself from the likes of the hard-right loose cannons such as Ted Nugent and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy for their offensive remarks about Blacks.
The GOP’s overt racial name-callers and baiters are the softest of soft targets, and it’s easy to make examples of when they go off the racial deep end. A swift and seemingly indignant rebuke of them makes good PR copy. They serve to burnish the image of the GOP as a party that will not tolerate bigotry and is no longer afraid to call out those who spew it. Yet the hard political reality remains that the party’s race-baiters will not suddenly disappear.
They certainly didn’t on Jan. 6. Black Capitol Police officers said they were reviled with racial epithets from the Trump-supporting mob. GOP House leaders then doubled down by flatly refusing to appoint members to the select committee investigating the riot. And even worse, they have refused to utter a peep of condemnation of the Trump-fueled insurrection in the Congressional Record.
So, conjuring up a dramatic but largely symbolic gesture such as backing the Juneteenth holiday and O’Ree’s medal hardly signals a Damascus Road epiphany for the GOP on race. As McConnell has made abundantly clear on every big-ticket, crucial public policy issue such as firm protections for voting rights, the GOP is still, and will remain, the same old race-malignant GOP.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.