How Badly Did They Want to Say the N-Word? RNC, Day 3

Your nightly guide to racism at the Republican National Convention.

Two former NFL players, both Black men, spoke at the RNC on the same night a wildcat strike in the name of Black lives spread across the sports world. They were joined by a veteran of the civil rights movement, who touted his civil disobedience half a century ago to Republicans as protests continued in Kenosha over the police shooting of another Black man. The speeches were so dissonant with the current moment that they were practically dispatches from another dimension, one in which, sure, America may have had a long, hot summer of discontent many years ago but 2020 has been just fine.

First up was former NFL safety and self-proclaimed former Democrat Jack Brewer, who once called Trump America’s “first Black president.” Brewer, who is facing federal charges for insider trading, denied that Trump ever called white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people” (he did), and reminded us for the umpteenth time that Republicans “freed the slaves.”

Then we heard Burgess Owens, another NFL alum and Fox and Friends host who is now the Republican nominee for Utah’s 4th congressional district seat:

This November, we stand at a crossroads. Mobs torch our cities while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism my father fought against in World War II. We have a Democrat candidate for president who says that I’m “not Black” if I don’t vote for him. Now, more than ever, we need leaders who stand by their principles and won’t compromise their values for political opportunities. Now, more than ever, we need leaders who will stand up to the lawlessness supported by the radical left. This November, we have an opportunity to reject the mob mentality and once again be the America my great-great grandfather believed in. 

Both men’s speeches included all the signposts of their Black history bona fides you might expect from men of their generation. Enslaved ancestors? Check. Sharecropper grandparents? Yep. Family encounters with Jim Crow racism and the KKK? You know it. Their experiences were dwarfed, however, by the testimony of Clarence Henderson, a civil rights activist who participated in the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter sit-in. He spoke not only of this particular act of bravery, but of the obstacles he faced being born in a segregated US—poverty, a substandard education—and of his ultimate triumph over them. And all of these Black men adduced their deep, intimate knowledge of this country’s entrenched racism to an argument for…why Donald Trump should be reelected as president. “If you do vote for Biden,” Henderson said, “you don’t know history.” 

I don’t mean to be blithe here or suggest that any of these speakers were being disingenuous about their experiences with racism. On the contrary, it is because these narratives are so credible that it is so insulting to find them being made in a dog-and-pony show in support of a demonstrably racist president. 

Brewer, Owens, and Henderson are not the only Black people to appear at this year’s RNC, and they won’t be the only Black people casting a vote for Trump in November. Black conservatives are complicated, and their politics are inflected by racism as surely as are the politics of Black liberals and leftists. Their conservatism is no sin. But what’s unconscionable is the way they reduced 400 years of systemic racial oppression—whose legacy we are grappling with today—to “partisan differences” in order to cape for a president who has consistently proven that he will work to uphold that very system. What’s disingenuous is the way they asked Black voters to swallow their platitudes about Trump being the criminal justice reform candidate mere minutes before Mike Pence began blowing the familiar dog whistles of “looting and violence” versus “law and order.”

And ultimately, all this work of the noble Trump-supporting Negro exists for little reason other than to serve as a balm for the pained conscience of suburban white audiences. The reminders that the GOP is the party of Lincoln, the wailing about the “radical” left and its project of sowing division—these aren’t inducements for other Black people to vote Republican so much as they’re assurances to white moderates that Republicans aren’t bigots or racists; the other side is. The nice Black man on TV says so. 

Tonight, white Republicans didn’t have to say the n-word. They got their Black friends to all but say it for them. And for that, tonight’s RNC earns the full 10 out of 10 Atwaters. 

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