Jim DeMint, Jonathan Chait and the still-raging Civil War "debate"

When the Heritage Foundation head can’t even admit it took "big government" to end slavery, we have a race problem

By Joan Walsh
Published April 10, 2014 3:01PM (EDT)
Jim DeMint     (AP/Cliff Owen)
Jim DeMint (AP/Cliff Owen)

I’m sure Jonathan Chait is grateful to the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint for sharing his wisdom about “people of faith” ending slavery, not “big government.” It shows the extent to which the mainstream right is still fighting the Civil War. I never bought Chait’s false equivalence between the way the left and right use race in the age of Barack Obama, but DeMint surely didn’t advance Chait’s cause.

It could seem unfair to link DeMint to Chait, just because Chait’s reply to his critics, myself included, came the day DeMint's ludicrous remarks became public. But Republicans are stepping in it every damn day, so if Chait had published his reply on a day ending in "y," I probably could have found a toxic GOP statement on race. DeMint’s emancipation denialism just shows how thoroughly race is baked into the modern Republican Party, and anyone who’s trying to insist “Democrats do it too” has to answer for the former senator from South Carolina’s invidious revisionism.

Here’s exactly what DeMint told a Christian radio show last week, courtesy of Think Progress:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Speaking of God, God help me: Where to start? Far from granting enslaved Americans “inalienable rights,” the Constitution had to be amended by “big government” several times in order to end slavery and grant African-Americans citizenship. (It would take another 100 years to secure their civil rights, including the right to vote.) While Abraham Lincoln no doubt had “love in his heart,” he brought the power of the federal government down on the side of the enslaved, fighting a bloody Civil War to free them.

Why is DeMint even talking about this? First, let me venture a few Chait-like thoughts. DeMint’s remarks show that the right is on the defensive on race – they at least know they have to be against slavery and applaud its abolition -- and that’s a good thing, I guess. I could even try to follow Chait’s standard for fair-minded political debate and look at DeMint’s argument as being strictly about his love of smaller government, lower taxes and “freedom.”

But the fact is, African-Americans (and women, and children, and workers, but that’s for another piece) needed government to secure their freedom and their basic rights. The one area where we could expect Americans to agree on a role for government – that it was necessary to stop the practice of cruelly enslaving human beings – nah, they want to fight about that too.

Does that make them racist? A lot of people on the right and left actually agree: The word “racist” has probably outlived its usefulness. We just don’t have another term yet. The real debate should be about institutions, policies and actions, not divining what’s in someone’s heart. The problem for the U.S. today is that a whole set of institutions and policies and practices have deliberately advantaged one group over another, and continue to do so to this day.

If you can’t see that, if you won’t see that, if you deny the evidence and even make up false stories to explain the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow terrorism, legal racial discrimination and its present-day manifestations, you have a problem.  You are at best indifferent to the persistence of racism and racial disadvantage and uninterested in what might end it.

And if you consistently ally with people who overtly use appeals to racism and claims of white racial superiority, you are the problem. DeMint’s first intellectual product at Heritage, recall, was authored by a white supremacist who regularly writes about Latino moral and intellectual inferiority. From the blight of birtherism (mostly unrepudiated by mainstream GOP leaders) to routine slurs about Obama as "the food stamp president" with a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" mind-set and "a deep-seated  hatred of white people" who wants to "create dependency" because "as an African-American male" he received "tremendous advantage" from government programs, today's GOP has taken every opportunity to play on the racial fears of white Americans to discredit this president and his party.

And if you promote false equivalence between Jim DeMint and liberals who defend Obama from that siege, that makes you part of the problem, too.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Civil War Heritage Foundation Jim Demint Jonathan Chait President Obama Racism Republican Party Slavery