On racists in government and sunlight as a disinfectant

Rep. Steve King of Iowa said some pretty racist things. Again. This time, though, they were both shockingly unambiguous and came after a midterm election where the GOP got shellacked, and where its only hope to regain ground is in appealing to the kinds of people who don’t find racism all that appealing. So his congressional colleagues aren’t just ignoring it like they’ve done so often before. They’re taking action, albeit well short of expelling him.

What struck me about the resulting national conversation is the assumption, sometimes made explicit, that Steve King can’t keep going on like this, not if he wants to maintain his job come the next election cycle. Surely, the reason the fine folks of Iowa’s 4th District have been sending him back to Washington as their representative every other year since 2003 is that they just aren’t aware of how thoroughly he despises anyone who doesn’t look as lily white as they do. (The district is 95.8% white and 0.8% black.) If only the media would make it clearer, or if only they heard about it from other lawmakers in their party, they’d recoil from the man and kick his ass out.

Except I’m not convinced. We like to think America’s mostly moved on from its profoundly racist past, and that, while racism lingers, it’s at the very least underground or confined to tiki torch weirdos or the most thuggish of cops. Systemic racism, structural racism, those remain more widespread, but Steve King’s brand of actually expressed white supremacy, that’s on the outs.

But that would be very odd if true. We’re only a generation or so removed from outright segregation, after all. Only a generation away from lynchings held like festival events, with crowds cheering the strangulation or immolation of innocent blacks. To think racism as consciously believed white supremacy would just not be a thing a mere four or five decades later, when some of the perpetrators of those horrors are still alive, is, well, naive. There are lots of Americans who, while they might not shout it from the rooftops, are still kind of convinced that blacks just aren’t as good–innately, intellectually, morally–as whites, or that people from those odd places outside our borders can’t possibly “share our values” and so are always and everywhere a threat to good white stock.

This is why I suspect that for a critical mass of voters in Iowa’s 4th, Steve King’s racism is a feature, not a bug. They might not admit it, but they’re pretty okay with the stuff he says, even the stuff that appalls the rest of us. I think it’s just too soon to believe otherwise, to believe people like King aren’t expressing the views of a rather large portion of the electorate.

Thus sunlight can’t really disinfect, because for too many Americans, what Steve King–or Donald Trump in more veiled ways–is saying just doesn’t need disinfecting. He could tone it down, but he’s expressing all too widely held beliefs.

We’re just going to have to wait. Racism is in retreat. Racists are in decline. But we’ve still got a long way to go, and racism lives on in our elected bodies because racism–real, unapologetic racism–lives on, probably more than we want to admit, in our electorate.