It does not exactly break your heart to see Mitch McConnell used as a piñata.
He is a man of uniquely pious hypocrisy, able to affect moist-eyed sincerity while ruthlessly chopping the legs out from under democracy. Whether it is stealing Supreme Court seats or defending an indefensible president, his superpower is the uncanny ability to lie, to know that you know he’s lying and yet to keep a straight face through it all.
So one does not weep to see him smacked about, as happened last week after he rhetorically implied that African Americans are something other than real Americans. But one hopes both ardent critics and casual observers understand that ultimately, this is not simply a McConnell problem — which is to say, not just a transient gaffe reflecting only one senator’s clumsy syntax.
For those who missed it, a recap: Asked last week about African-American anxiety over the Senate’s failure to pass legislation to expand and defend voting rights, the minority leader replied: “Well, the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
It was a framing for which he is rightly being pilloried. Black voters have filled Twitter with images of themselves over variations of the message, We Are Americans, with the hashtag #MitchPlease. The NAACP tweeted archly, “Senator McConnell, what is the difference between African Americans and Americans?” On Friday, McConnell pushed back, claiming he meant to say “all Americans” and dubbing the criticism “deeply offensive,” which you’d say, too, if your mouth ratted you out while your brain was off duty.
But if you think McConnell is the only one who needs to be reminded that, as Black poet Langston Hughes once put it, “I, too, sing America,” you haven’t been paying attention. You missed Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet the Press” describing how “parents” are worried about critical race theory while “parents of color” might have a different view. You also missed CBS News’ tweet asking, “How young is too young to teach kids about race?” As if children of color don’t learn about race about the same time they learn about walking. Finally, you’ve missed all those news stories where reporters talk about “working-class voters,” “suburban moms” or “evangelicals” when they mean “white” — as if Black and brown people did not work, live outside the city or go to church.
Granted, this is not the bigotry of torches and hoods. No, this rhetorical decoupling of “African” and “American,” of Black people from normal human functions, represents “only” the bigotry of the implicit assumption, the things some people believe without consciously knowing they do — much less interrogating why they do. And yet, they do.
For them, white is the default position, the color of generic American-ness and, truth be told, generic human-ness. By contrast, Black and brown are the colors of exoticism, noteworthy only for how they diverge from, challenge or impinge the perceived norm.
That’s what McConnell’s mouth revealed about him. But it is necessary to recognize that he is not an outlier. Nor is inexact language the sin here. Rather, it is language that implicitly disavows, disinherits and disrespects tens of millions of people who are every bit as “American” as Mitch McConnell on his best day. Yes, it’s “only” the bigotry of the implicit assumption.
But that’s the most common kind.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.