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Tolerance for Racism Paved the Way for the Moral Bankruptcy of This Moment

Jemar Tisby

The credible sexual abuse allegations leveled at political leaders keep coming. The most recent example is Roy Moore, a candidate for U.S. senate in Alabama. Several women from his past have come forward with stories of Moore as an adult trolling malls and other venues for teenage girls to forcefully “man kiss” and fondle them.

Moore is just one of a long list of public leaders who have abused their power for sexual gratification. Al Franken, George H.W. Bush, and even the sitting president have all been embroiled in sordid sexual scandals. At this point, many of us are mentally scrolling through the list of people we admire and bracing ourselves for disappointment if one of them turns out to be a predator.

Yet we as American citizens should not be surprised at the paucity of character many of our politicians currently exhibit. Tolerance for racism from our public officials paved the way for the moral bankruptcy of this moment.

While many are now responding with justified outrage at the sexual abuse of politicians, many others reserved their outrage when it came to issues of covert or overt racism displayed by the nation’s leaders throughout our history.

Racism in Politics?…It’s the American Way

Let’s limit our survey of racist politicians to those at the federal level in the twentieth century. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), son of a southern Presbyterian minister who supported the founding of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America (PCCSA), was so taken with the fictitious narrative of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in film Birth of a Nation (1915) that he held multiple viewings in the White House for hundreds of guests.

Southern senators provide almost limitless evidence for open racism in the nation’s highest offices. Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947), a Mississippi Senator and two-time governor, was especially notorious for his extreme segregationist views. According to Bilbo, “The South stands for blood, for the preservation of the blood of the white race. To preserve her blood, the white South must absolutely deny social equality to the Negro regardless of what his individual accomplishments might be.”

In response to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision that desegregated public schools and effectively struck down legalized segregation (Jim Crow), southern politicians drafted the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” (1956), otherwise known as the “Southern Manifesto.”

Co-signed by 81 representatives and 19 senators, it declared:

“[Brown v. Board] is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.”

The manifesto committed the signers to a political war of resistance by saying, “We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”

Another Alabamian, George Wallace (1919-1998), made his position on race relations clear in his inauguration speech as governor, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” As an independent presidential candidate in 1968 running on a segregationist platform, Wallace carried Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi while garnering 13.5% of the overall vote and 46 electoral votes.

Racist appeals have become increasingly covert as the public’s attitude surrounding diversity has somewhat changed. In a revealing interview, Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist, explained the new racial rhetoric in politics.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Much more could be said. We haven’t even mentioned Reagan’s decision to give a stump speech for his presidential run in 1980 at the Neshoba County Fair and invoke the language of “states’ rights”. We have not spoken of how the first President Bush repeatedly conjured the specter of “Willie Horton” in his campaign. Nor have we discussed the numerous policies like the “War on Drugs” or gerrymandering that effectively supported white supremacy in all facets of American life.

Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying

Highlighting the racist or racialized platforms of public officials does not mean that each person remained static in their beliefs. Wallace, for example, expressed repentance for his segregationist views and made public apologies for the role he played in opposing black civil rights.

Additionally, each of these politicians had expansive political records that sometimes featured legislation that advanced racial equality. Over time even the most socially conservative politicians included people of other races in their administrations. Most of these politicians even had some support from black voters.

Plays on racial resentment were not confined to a single party either. The mid-twentieth century featured a complete realignment that essentially reversed the historical platforms of each party. In recent years, Democrats also enacted policies and used calculated language to reassure some white voters. The example of “super predators” comes to mind.

It must also be noted that each of these politicians faced strong opposition by more racially progressive citizens. Their views did not represent all Americans. At the same time, they all won elections and  some elicited almost fanatical support precisely because they promised to preserve the racial status quo in one way or another. In spite of their racist–or at least unenlightened–views, the public permitted each of these men to remain in political office without an impeachment or other form of removal.

Racism and Sexual Abuse Both Dehumanize

What is the point of this foray into political history? The pattern of contested, but still very popular, racists and racist-adjacent elected officials in national political life shows how accustomed Americans have become to acts of immorality.

Racism and white supremacy among the nation’s leaders has desensitized us to ethical corruption. We have become comfortable with compromising on fundamental issues of human dignity. We, as voters, should have set the expectation all along that elected leaders must honor the basic rights of all people–whether based on race, sex, economic class or any other factor. This, however, has not been the case.

We have been primed for the present lack of principles by centuries of accommodating racism and white supremacy in our nation’s leaders. Racism and sexual abuse are both forms of dehumanization and they both reduce people made in the likeness of God to mere objects. If we tolerate dehumanization in one area, it can happen in any area.

No politician is perfect. We must differentiate between patterns of impropriety and occasional lapses in judgment, between mistakes that disqualify one for office altogether and ones that merit a simple reprimand, between unrepentant offenders and penitent people who made a foolish decision. Nevertheless, the time is now and long past to collectively demand that our elected leaders honor the dignity of all those who bear God’s image.

8 thoughts on “Tolerance for Racism Paved the Way for the Moral Bankruptcy of This Moment

  1. Mike B

    Good article but how did you not include Bill Clinton in your list of political figures?

  2. Curt Day

    When reading articles on racism, the following quote from Martin Luther King’s speech against eh Vietnam War always comes to mind:

    ‘I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.’

    Those who oppose racism rarely include this quote in their statements. And perhaps that is why we still have so much racism to overcome.

  3. David Miller

    Correction to my comment. Should have written: “You are also correct that a person steeped in postmodern thinking might argue for placing ‘human value as an Absolute outside human study.'”

  4. David Miller

    Hi Larry,

    The author is a scholar with an MDiv, so I’d say it’s a safe bet he’s familiar with postmodernism.

    I’d also say it’s a safe assumption Mr. Tisby would agree with your statement that “Racism is wrong because people have an innate value that is not assigned by the State.” He might not put it exactly like that and I’m not trying to put words in his mouth, but the Bible is quite clear that all people are created in God’s image. This is surely the basis of your statement and surely a doctrine Mr. Tisby would subscribe to.

    You are also correct that a person steeped in postmodern thinking might approach these issues differently because they might well not place “human value as an Absolute outside human study.”

    But I don’t think the author was trying to persuade postmodernists in particular with his clear and forceful argument (one a postmodernist could clearly understand even if they approached the issues using a different intellectual foundation).

    So what exactly are you trying to say? I honestly can’t tell.

  5. Marculis

    Great read!

  6. george canady

    Thanks Jemar. Praying for you now.

  7. Toviyah

    President Richard M. Nixon started the “War on Drugs”. It was actually an admitted attack on blacks and the anti-war left (e.g. hippies). John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, was quoted making the following statement about the war on drugs:
    “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” -John Ehrlichman

    (Journalist Dan Baum wrote in the Harper’s April 2016 issue about how he interviewed Ehrlichman in 1994 while working on a book about drug prohibition.)

    There are other factors cited from the Nixon administration record that might support Ehrlichman’s statement, specifically the President’s racially specific and caustic language on tape — “the ‘little Negro bastards’ on welfare [who] ‘live like a bunch of dogs'” — and the ‘no-knock’ searches initiated under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 which echoed Ehrlichman’s words in Harper’s about raiding the homes of blacks and hippies.)


  8. Larry

    The author does not seem aware of post-modernism.. Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Values are only created by people and do not reflect any absolute right-and-wrong.. We no longer teach our kids what is moral but encourage them to develop their own moral system. When we do that, we loose the right to say what they choose is wrong. Racism is wrong because people have an innate value that is not assigned by the State. However, that view is rejected because it places human value as an Absolute outside human study.

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