The Republicans' White Supremacy Problem Is Way Bigger Than Steve Scalise

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Maybe his story is true.

Maybe House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) had no idea he was speaking at a white supremacist rally in May 2002.

Maybe the name "European-American Unity and Rights Organization" raised no red flags for him or his staff, all political professionals with cellphones and Internet access like the rest of us.

And maybe the involvement of David Duke, a known white supremacist and former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, failed to give him pause about that appearance, which was widely reported Monday, launching the Republican Party into a political controversy.

But it's doubtful.

Source: Bill Clark/Getty Images
Source: Bill Clark/Getty Images

It's doubtful because the strategy behind Republican success over the past 50 years has been an unambiguous appeal to racist white Southerners. This is no secret. And even if Scalise isn't an active supporter of that strategy, he and the rest of his party are, at the very least, willful and knowing beneficiaries.

It's been that way for decades. Here's what Scalise spokeswoman Moira Bagley said about the rally incident on Monday, per MSNBC:

"Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints. In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around."

But the truth is, he never needed to build support for a group like EURO, which bemoans the "browning of America" and "Jews in general" while lauding the "beautiful Germany of the 1930s." That support was already implied through Scalise's party's political dealings — playing up the same tired racial stereotypes and appealing to fears of a minority-majority.

It's part of the reason why the GOP has kept such a firm hold on the conservative white South for the past five decades. It's a big reason why Republicans secured 64% of the white male vote this midterm election.

Source: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
Source: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Over the past half-century, it's become politically advantageous to keep your racist opinions to yourself. Republicans learned this in the ruins of Jim Crow, when many Americans rallied around the idea that black people should have basic civil rights, like the right to vote and fair access to employment, schools, housing and mobility.

So the GOP shifted its strategy. Inflammatory rhetoric took a back seat to less explicit (but equally insidious) appeals to "states' rights," language rooted in a nostalgia for the antebellum — that is, slave-owning — era. 

"A good many, perhaps a majority of the [Republican] party's leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man's Party," conservative journalist Robert Novak reported in 1963 after attending the Republican National Convention, according to Salon.

Intensified "tough on crime" rhetoric also attracted bitter white voters opposed to the progress and civic disruption linked to the civil rights movement. 

The result has been almost complete GOP control of the South since the Nixon presidency. Meanwhile, race-based gerrymandering and tightening voter restrictions represent more recent tools used by Republicans to contain and weaken black political power in the region.

Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Black people in Louisiana woke up this week to learn that the third-ranking House Republican — a representative of their state and the legislative enforcer for a party poised to take over the most important political body in the country next year — spent time little more than a decade ago "offering support on issues ... of concern to" a hate group with the goal to ensure their utter powerlessness.

That's a huge problem. We talk about black political participation like it's the key to ending racist policy, even police violence (see: Ferguson, Missouri). But important as that may be, we also fail to acknowledge how incredibly hard we as a country have worked to make politics as futile and inaccessible to black Americans as possible — notably by continually reminding them that politics, without question, is a white man's game.

Scalise speaking at a white supremacist rally is an extreme example of this, a near-nightmare scenario almost too baffling to be true. But considering our nation's history — and more recently, that of the Republican Party — it shouldn't surprise us one bit.

In fact, it's politics as usual.