Dana Milbank: Apologist for racists?

In twenty five years as a professional journalist, I occasionally worked stories alongside the national press corps, the folks with the really big megaphones. What I learned from those encounters was that even the big guns could be terribly wrong sometimes.

An example: After Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson met with Democratic Party leaders in Atlanta in 1988, the “bigs” all reported a lovefest, out of which reenergized Jackson supporters would work vigorously to elect Michael Dukakis President. That didn’t square with what I was hearing as I followed the Indiana Black Caucus at the convention. That night, as the titans celebrated the merger of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the mainstream Democratic Party over national media, I told my audience in Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan I doubted that people who came to Atlanta supporting Jackson would race back home to support Dukakis. And they didn’t. The high and mighty journalists, tucked securely in bed with Democratic Party operatives, were wrong.

And they’re still getting it wrong. Case in point: Dana Milbank’s apology in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-steve-scalise-episode-shows-how-far-weve-come/2015/01/09/c5a3978e-980b-11e4-aabd-d0b93ff613d5_story.html) for Louisiana Republican and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise in the flap over Scalise’s 2002 talk to David Duke’s white supremacy group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. Milbank, through his very large megaphone, tells readers he just can’t identify with Democrats who decry Scalise’s willingness to associate with white supremacists. It was, after all, Milbank says, all the way back in 2002. Rather than condemning Scalise for it, and driving him from Congress, Milbank says we should celebrate “the sea change that has occurred in national politics since then.”

Why? Because Republicans, who gladly welcomed racists into their ranks when civil rights legislation drove them out of the Democratic Party, have learned not to associate publicly with racists because it’s bad for politics. Beyond that, Milbank sees a real transformation among Republicans. The evidence: a Republican candidate backed out of a speaking engagement when it turned out a man who sells “white pride” stuff had a table there. And, Republicans quickly dropped racist Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his tax rebellion movement when he mentioned, in public, “the Negro…[was]…better off as slaves.”

I don’t doubt Republicans have changed their strategies with the increasing diversification of the American electorate. Milbank’s evidence speaks directly to that. What it doesn’t speak to is what’s going on the minds and hearts of Republicans to this day. A foundational finding in attitude research is that the longer an attitude is held, the harder it is to change. It’s been a long time since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were enacted into law to prevent racism from gnawing away at human dignity, a long time since racists fled the Democratic Party for the Republican.  But, as wiser folks than I have pointed out, laws don’t change minds.

I question Dana Milbank’s assertion of a “sea change” in people’s attitudes, especially Republicans, on race. (Researchers have found a clear correlation between those who identify as Republicans and racist attitudes.) He seems to be as smitten by the soothing words of Republican Party leaders today as his national colleagues were by Democratic Party spinmeisters in Atlanta in 1988. Hey, we’re all wrong from time to time. The difference here is, my pronouncements have little impact, Dana Milbank’s echo across the country and around the world, and, in this case, deflect public attention from the real state of racism in this nation. I am left wondering why he felt the need to write this apology for Republican racism at all.

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