Invoking Jesus to Defend Racial Insensitivity? Please!

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Of all the defenses of Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.), the new House majority whip, in the wake of revelations that he spoke at a gathering of white supremacists in 2002, I find Congressman Steve King’s (R-Iowa), reported in today’s Washington Post, the most outrageous:

“Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners,” King said. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick. Given that piece of Scripture, and understanding that Scalise probably wasn’t staffed thoroughly, I could understand how something like this happened. But I know his heart, I’ve painted houses with him post-Katrina, and I know he is a good man.”

I’m sorry, Congressman King, but you can’t have it both ways. Either Scalise did not know he was speaking to a group of David Duke followers, or he did know and was doing it in hopes of changing their hearts. Which is it? If it’s the latter, I’d like to see a text of his remarks to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), an organization long labeled a hate group by civil rights advocates. Did Scalise, like Jesus, call out hatred and urge his audience to love? I doubt it.

I find it insulting that, before the mangers have even been put away for next year, yet another politician invokes the name of Jesus in defense of the indefensible. Jesus knew and acknowledged that he was sharing a meal with those who were frowned on by society—those who were in need of having their hearts and minds changed by a message of compassion and grace.

How, in the name of all that is holy, can we be having the same discussion that plagued Senator Robert Byrd, who became a United States congressman from my home state in 1952 in spite of revelations that he had organized a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s?

In spite of Senator Byrd’s accomplishments, he was haunted, both professionally and personally, by what he successfully wrote off in the 1952 election as a youthful indiscretion, later called “an albatross around [his] neck,” and, as his career and his life drew to a close, attempted one last time in 2005 to explain in a biography.

Have we really progressed so little? Each time the subject of race roils our social conscience, many among us talk about how far we’ve come and wonder why we can’t move beyond the past. But public figures who defend actions like those of Congressman Scalise keep us mired in racial quicksand.

Whether we can have courageous conversations and move forward as a nation depends on exactly how many of us are paying attention. And I know from my own experience that many of us are not.

At the age of eighteen, I received a United States Savings Bond from Senator Robert Byrd for my achievements in high school. Senator Byrd became a congressman before I was born, and when he died in 2010, he was the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress. He was revered in West Virginia, largely because he funneled so much federal money into the economy of the state.

Though I know now that his ties to the Ku Klux Klan were an issue even in the 1952 election, I paid little attention to the news when I first voted for Senator Byrd in the 1970s. I knew only that, like me, he grew up poor and that much of the scholarship money that sent me to college resulted from his efforts.

I wasn’t paying attention.

I didn’t know of Senator Byrd’s ties to the KKK until I moved to Maryland and became a regular reader of the Washington Post. I’m certain that the issue was raised in West Virginia newspapers, but as a young adult, I was not particularly tuned in to politics. So I can understand that some voters in Louisiana who helped elect Congressman Scalise may have been out of touch, as I was.

But what I can’t understand is how the leadership of Congress can continue to elevate to the highest positions of power, especially today, people who have associations to such organizations. Surely, among all the leaders elected by the people, the vast majority do not have the albatross of racial hatred hanging around their necks. So why place such a person in the third most influential position in Republican leadership?

Almost every time I point this out to people whose political views are at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine, they invoke the name of Al Sharpton and blame him and President Obama for promoting hatred against whites. I’m no fan of Al Sharpton. But he has never been associated with a group that has advocated killing white people. Nor has he been elected to any political office or elevated by democrats to a position of political leadership. There’s a reason he’s still referred to as the Reverend Al Sharpton. Perhaps President Obama has given him too much of an ear, but I don’t think anyone in his/her right mind would equate Al Sharpton to someone who gives an audience to a person who is the black equivalent of David Duke.

I’m not sure how to get people to pay attention—to look beyond the rhetoric at the facts of what is happening. But no black person who associates with a group that advocates lynching or murdering whites has ever been given a voice in the public arena. And until Republicans stop defending whites who have ties to hate groups, we stand little chance of having courageous conversations about race and moving our country forward.

Are you paying attention?

And tell me, how do we get those who aren’t paying attention to stop and listen? Do you hear what I hear?

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