NEW YORK — If the nation is in the midst of a historic reckoning on racism, most leaders of the Republican Party are not participating.
On the same day last week that a jury convicted the police officer who killed George Floyd, Republicans in Washington focused much of their energy on condemning the longest-serving Black woman in Congress. In the days since, former President Donald Trump attacked what he called the “racist rants” of basketball icon LeBron James. And some of Trump’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill are considering forming a new group that initially planned to champion “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Beyond simple rhetoric, Republican state lawmakers are pushing forward with new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect people of color and are resisting legislation designed to prevent police brutality.
The moves reflect a stark political reality: As America grows more diverse, the Republican Party continues to be led almost entirely by white people, particularly men, who cater to an overwhelmingly white base. And despite fierce criticism from civil rights leaders and growing concern from business leaders who are traditional allies, many Republicans see no problem.
“It’s unfortunate that more in the Republican Party are not willing to stand up for what I would define as creating a more just and humane system,” Martin Luther King III told The Associated Press. “It makes you wonder if they really even care.”
Still, the reality of America’s modern political coalitions is increasingly complex. While reliable demographic data on voting patterns in last year’s election is still emerging, leaders in both parties believe that Trump attracted more support from Latinos — and perhaps Black men — than his more conventional Republican presidential predecessors.
“Republicans are making inroads,” said Ari Fleischer, an aide in George W. Bush’s White House.
Fleischer helped author the Republican National Committee 2013 internal report that determined the GOP’s survival depended upon adopting more inclusive messaging and policies to attract the growing universe of nonwhite voters.
“Despite Trump’s rhetoric and the knock on Trump that he was a racist, he grew the vote among black African Americans, he grew the vote among Hispanic Americans,” Fleischer said. “He did what we called for.”
The continued Republican resistance to African American priorities on voting and policing could threaten any modest progress the party has made with voters of color. But more than that, the GOP could further alienate the larger swath of suburban voters — many of them white — who have turned sharply away from Trump’s party.
Leading Republicans insist that systemic racism doesn’t exist is America. But in a tacit acknowledgment that something needs to change, Republicans picked South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the GOP’s only Black senator and one of just three Black Republicans in Congress, to deliver a national response to President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
Overall, 261 Republicans serve in Congress, and fewer than two dozen are people of color. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Sunday celebrated the handful of nonwhite House freshmen elected last fall — there were nine — in response to former President George W. Bush’s recent description of the modern-day GOP as “nativist.”
“This party is expanding to reflect America,” McCarthy said on “Fox News Sunday.”
But in the same interview, he was again forced to denounce plans by Trump allies such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., to form an “America First” caucus that planned to promote “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” according to an internal planning document. After the plans were publicly reported, Greene distanced herself from the the “Anglo Saxon” language and blamed staff.
Look no further for evidence of the GOP’s entrenched position than Minnesota, where a jury last week convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murder after he was caught on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes.
The state, which is an epicenter of the nation’s racial reckoning, leans Democratic. Trump lost Minnesota by 7 percentage points in 2020 — having lost by only 2 percentage points four years earlier — even after spending much of the the fall warning suburban voters of violent Black Lives Matter protesters.
But there is little sign of urgency in Minnesota’s Republican-controlled state Senate, which so far has resisted new Democrat-backed legislation to address racial justice and police accountability. Both parties supported a proposal last summer that, among other things, banned police chokeholds.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, the state’s most powerful elected Republican, refused to commit to the new legislative overhaul in an interview.
“We are looking at it. We’ve been looking at it. But we’re a thorough, deliberative body,” he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the number of people of color killed by police continues to grow.
Since the guilty verdict was read last Tuesday, at least six people were fatally shot by officers across the U.S. That figure doesn’t include Daunte Wright, the 20-year-old African American killed by Minnesota police during a traffic stop and laid to rest two days after the Chauvin verdict.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, described inaction as unacceptable when asked about the general lack of urgency from his party to address police reform or other African American priorities.
“It’s obvious more work is needed to ensure opportunity is fully and fairly available to all Americans,” Pawlenty told the AP. “Republicans have a responsibility to advance that goal and can do so in ways that are consistent with our principles. “
That may be happening in Washington, where once-stalled police reform legislation on Capitol Hill may be slowly moving toward a bipartisan consensus. Republican leaders, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have said little publicly of the Chauvin verdict, but McConnell has tapped Scott to continue leading the effort in talks with Democrats.
Passage remains uncertain, however.
The Democratic-led House has now twice approved what it’s calling “the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” which would be the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation. Senate Republicans have so far resisted the proposal.
Meanwhile, the RNC issued a new set of talking points for surrogates three days after the Chauvin verdict encouraging Republicans to focus on “dangerous anti-police rhetoric” from Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and a handful of Black and Latina congresswomen who make up “the Squad.”
The document specifically encourages Republicans to note that four members of the Squad, which includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have called for defunding or dismantling the police, but spent thousands of dollars on their own “private security services.” The talking points also highlight Waters’ comments earlier in the week encouraging supporters “to get more confrontational.”
“Maxine Waters is encouraging violence and encouraging confrontation, at a time when our law enforcement officials are working to keep communities safe,” the RNC document says.
Waters made her comments to a Minnesota crowd ahead of the Chauvin verdict. When asked what should happen if Chauvin wasn’t convicted on murder charges, she replied: “We got to stay on the street, we’ve got to get more active, we’ve got to get more confrontational.”
Hours before the verdict, House Republicans tried but failed to censure Waters, who has been serving in Congress for three decades.
On the defensive, Republicans are trying to score political points by noting that Democrats, not Republicans, embraced racist Jim Crow laws a half-century ago before a major political realignment.
“I’m, for one, sick and tired of Democrats. They need to apologize for their history,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”