Will the religious right take on GOP racism?

The founder of the Promise Keepers speaks out against -- surprise! -- white privilege

Published November 29, 2012 4:23PM (EST)

Ask yourself: If you heard the following comments, what kind of person would you guess said them?

I believe (I've benefited) because I'm Caucasian. I believe that black men have less opportunity, less tenure and shorter time (to prove themselves in the workplace) ...

I think men of color have a more difficult road to tread and I think many people don't realize it ...

I've heard (people) say it doesn't matter what color (an employee) is (when they fire him). To me that offends every person of color out there. It is as if to suggest that everything is done on a fair scale. It's not done on a fair scale. Men of color don't have the same privileges or opportunities and they are under greater pressure when they step in (to a job) ...

For some reason our culture has dialed up something that causes us to have less confidence in people of color.

Now ask yourself: What would your reaction be if you discovered that those comments were made not by a civil rights activist or a liberal politician subsequently being decried as a "race baiter" by right-wing media outlets, but instead by one of the best known Christian conservative icons in America? You'd probably have trouble believing that was true.

After all, the religious right has not been known for its forward-thinking views on racial equality -- and that's putting it mildly. From Bob Jones University's retrograde dating policies to the Mormon church's prohibition of black priests to what even Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed concedes is "the shameful legacy of racism" in "the white evangelical church," religious conservatism has often been an active supporter of both explicit and institutional bigotry.

But, alas, it is true -- the above indictment of racism and white privilege came from none other than University of Colorado football legend Bill McCartney. Yes, the same Bill McCartney who founded and still leads the ultraconservative Promise Keepers, and the same Bill McCartney who has led national fights against a woman's right to choose an abortion and against same-sex marriage. And that context makes the scathing comments incredibly important not just in the arena of college football, but also in the larger context of national politics.

First, college football: McCartney's comments were specifically in reaction to this week's firing of Jon Embree, the University of Colorado's first African-American football coach, after a mere two years on the job. (You can listen to his full statement at the bottom of this page.) As McCartney and others have pointed out, while Embree's record was atrocious, his white predecessor's record was also awful. Yet, that coach, Dan Hawkins, was given a full five years to try to reshape the team.

Understandably, that kind of blatant double standard is now fueling long-simmering suspicions of institutional bigotry against African Americans in college football. Such suspicions were further stoked yesterday when, according to the Associated Press, the University of Central Florida released a report finding that there are just "18 minority head coaches" at the Football Bowl Subdivision's 120 institutions, and that "100 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference commissioners, 76 percent of school president positions and 84 percent of all athletics director positions were held by white men." Additionally, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, since 2004, six of the nine FBS coaches fired after just two years were black. Meanwhile, AP points out that while many fired white coaches are rehired at other institutions, only one African American coach in college history, Tyrone Willingham, has ever been fired and rehired as a head coach at another school.

In light of all this, McCartney is just stating the painfully obvious about a college football world that originally made him famous -- namely, that it has a serious problem with institutional racism.

And yet, thanks to both McCartney's political profile in the conservative movement and the most recent election, this is so much more than just a sports story in one college town. It is, potentially, a microcosm of the biggest -- and most important -- internal battle that needs to be fought inside the Republican Party.

Recall that among the most significant questions to burst out of the 2012 election are those surrounding racism and the future of the GOP. As evidenced by President Obama winning reelection with the most diverse electoral coalition in the history of successful presidential campaigns, demographic changes mean Republicans can no longer consistently win national elections by relying almost exclusively on the white vote. But because racial resentment is a key force unifying so many of the conservative coalition's otherwise disparate subgroups, it is difficult to imagine Republican politicians suddenly transforming themselves into champions of anti-racism.

In crude terms, those vote-seeking pols know that if they embrace Latinos, they run the risk of alienating the anti-immigrant bigots, just as they know that if they champion civil rights for African Americans, they run the risk of alienating their white base in the Old Confederacy. And they know that these risks are particularly acute because their party's largest media megaphone, Fox News, seems intent on using racial resentment to prospect for its next ratings gusher.

Considering those dynamics, the only way out of the political catch-22 is for one of the Republican coalition's most powerful subgroups to wage a ground-up campaign to change the racial views of the party's grassroots base.

That initiative almost certainly won't come from the Tea Party, a majority of whose members are so bigoted (or ignorant ... or both) that they insist discrimination against whites is as big a problem in America as racism against people of color. And it probably won't come from the country club/Chamber of Commerce crowd, which tends to focus on greed-is-good economics to the exclusion of everything else. But the powerful statements of McCartney suggest a renewed -- if still slim -- possibility that it could eventually come from the religious right.

Before you insist that can never happen, remember that back in 1996, this very thing seemed entirely plausible, if not imminent. Citing McCartney as one of many examples at the time, the New York Times writer Jason DeParle reported that "calls for racial reconciliation have become commonplace throughout much of the religious right," with many conservative Christian leaders seeing an "enlightened self interest" in an anti-racist posture. The 2012 election results further underscores that the same self-interest still exists today -- only now it's more dire. Because of demographic changes in America, without a turn away from bigotry, the conservative movement will not merely forego expansion -- it may risk its own survival.

Of course, one statement from one icon -- even one as well known as McCartney -- does not an anti-racist revolution make. Bigotry in religious conservative politics, after all, is a persistent force. Sure, it has become more subtle -- whereas the American Prospect's Michelle Goldberg rightly notes that prejudice and religiosity were once explicitly and "deeply intertwined," today that bigotry is often camouflaged. However, don't be fooled -- as Alternet's Adele Stan says, the prejudice still very much exists, only it is now more often "presented in code."

That code, though, can be broken if more grassroots religious leaders are willing to follow McCartney's lead and create teachable moments.

He showed exactly how that's done this week by turning a college football controversy into a powerful lesson about white privilege. President Obama's second term -- and the inevitable race-tinged backlash to it among some on the right -- will create similar opportunities for other high-profile conservatives. Whether or not they heed the call and seize those opportunities could determine the future of the GOP - and the direction of race relations in America for the long haul.

SIDENOTE: Reporting on the McCartney comments on my radio show yesterday, we interviewed Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association, and Dr. Fitz Hill, co-author of "Crackback: How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches." You can listen to those interviews by clicking here.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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