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.
What I’ve been reading
In trying to branch out a bit in my Buddhism reading to explore traditions outside of Therevadan, I picked up this overview of Shin, which is the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. (Yes, bigger than Zen.) I’m still wrapping my head around it, because it’s very different from the meditative style of what I’m used to. Shin is a form of Pure Land Buddhism, which takes less of a contemplative, renunciant approach, and instead comes off as, well, salvation based. No meditation here. Shin Buddhists chant the name of the Buddha, in an avatar called Amida Buddha who is distinct from the historical Buddha, and through bringing him into their hearts and minds, achieve salvation/awakening. I’m not convinced, but it’s fascinating stuff, and Takamaro Shigaraki’s book tries to frame all this in a way that distinguishes it from Western notions of prayer. It’s a dense book, but I’m glad I read it.
I’ve written and talked and podcasted a lot about the question of political obligation, the question of whether you and I have a moral duty to obey the state’s commands by nature of them being the state’s commands. Theories arguing yes get advanced, and people like me poke at them and argue they don’t work or at least don’t work terribly well. Delmas takes a different approach, and it’s one I quite like. She says, “Okay, let’s take these theories seriously. Let’s say they work. If they do, then we have obligations to obey the state in some cases, but they also give rise to strong obligations in many cases to disobey, sometimes uncivilly.” It’s a novel approach and one I think works. I enjoyed the book enough that I’ve invited Delmas on Free Thoughts. Look for that episode in the coming weeks.