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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Republicans' John Walker problem

Posted By on Sat, Mar 16, 2013 at 6:43 PM

The above is what Rep. David Meeks tweeted while Rep. John Walker, a 76-year-old African American from Hope, Arkansas, gave a passionate speech alluding to his own personal history as the House debated the Voter I.D. law. Walker noted that most in the chamber did not share that history and had never been deprived of the right to vote. Take a minute to read about Walker’s life. Remember that there was a systematic effort, backed by the police power of the state, to keep folks like Walker from voting. Remember that Walker’s attempt, along with five others, to attend the University of Texas as the school’s first black undergraduates ended up in federal court. That was before Meeks was born, but not so long ago.

Walker was a foot soldier in the American Civil Rights movement. Think about the gall — the unearned and self-satisfied confidence, the easy disrespect — of Meeks saying, essentially, get over it.

We’ve noted a few times that in the Voter ID debate in Arkansas, proponents — however sincere — have declined to seriously acknowledge the history (living history) behind honest fears of what such laws mean. If I have missed it, please send along examples and I will happily link. But what I see from Meeks and others are lawmakers taking umbrage at the very idea of taking Walker seriously. Meeks’s tweet does not simply register a policy disagreement but dismisses Walker’s concerns out of hand as soon as they were uttered. It’s 2013. It bothers Meeks if someone brings up race because he is so personally confident that race cannot be an issue. I invite Rep. Meeks to consider how that might sound to folks with different experiences than his own.

I’ll note again that despite my deeply held disagreement with Voter ID proponents, I believe that they had an opportunity to show some basic decency by including in their remarks some respect for the history. For the living memory of someone like John Walker. Indeed, one might take their policy arguments on this issue a bit more seriously if they weren’t cloaked in such spite and resentment of the merest mention of that pain and that history. How about starting with something like — “We cannot make this decision without considering…” What I saw instead was petty offense-taking and contempt.

Perhaps Meeks and company simply do not care, but if you wish those of us who might be skeptical of motives to refrain from “impugning” your honor, you might start by showing respect and consideration to folks like Walker, given where we’ve been, given where we are. I hesitate to type “understanding” because as Walker himself said, that is deeply difficult for those of us (myself included) who have not experienced what he has. But that difficult work of understanding, of walking a mile in another’s shoes — that is the work of elected officials in a representative democracy. I am not accusing Meeks of prejudice. I am accusing him of a devastating failure of imagination.

You don’t have to agree with Walker. But I humbly suggest that when Walker talks on this subject, there is great value at least in listening. Given where we’ve been, given where we are.

If, instead, you wish to be indignant — that’s your right. If your sincere belief that raising the topic of race is a greater ill in this nation than the lingering impacts of racism itself, that’s your right. But do not then feign surprise when those you dismiss are not eager to join you. Do not feign surprise when some may wonder about your intentions.

If you lionize bigots, do not be surprised if your tent remains small. Do not triumphantly shout without context that Orval Faubus was a Democrat and Thaddeus Stevens was a Republican and expect anyone to take you seriously. Even if your intentions are innocuous — precisely when your intentions are innocuous — expect that cluelessness of history and symbolism may engender distrust. Do not be surprised if panels at CPAC with titles like "Trump The Race Card: Are You Sick And Tired Of Being Called A Racist When You Know You’re Not One?" descend into self-parody.

The Republican party has a political problem that is rooted in problems that run deeper than a political platform. Let me be clear: economic and social policy certainly matters. But there is nothing inherently “white” about low taxes or an anti-abortion position. If you consider Voter ID important, that’s fine, but understand that if folks think you might be trying to stop them from voting — certainly if folks think you are scoffing at their concerns — you cannot expect them to vote for you. Now or for years to come.

You are free to believe that the Republican Party’s “demographic problem” is caused by Democratic dirty tricks or folks wanting “gifts.” You may simply feel, like Scott Terry at CPAC (an outlier, to be sure), that spending time on any of these concerns will come "at the expense of young white Southern males like myself, my demographic." But if that’s the party you want to be, you cannot hope to be the party of America. Maybe once upon a time. But as Meeks might remember…it’s 2013.

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