When Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s promoted a racist narrative about Black people and crime at a campaign rally Saturday, it outraged civil rights leaders and many political pundits, who condemned them as out-of-bounds.
“He’s just contributing to dialogue that we’ve been hearing for decades, I would even say for centuries,” said Tina Harris, the endowed chair of Race, Media, and Cultural Literacy at Louisiana State University.
Weeks before the midterms, the fallout from Tuberville’s incendiary remarks has drawn condemnation from critics as Republicans push to spotlight crime ahead of the elections.
Many Republicans responded with a collective shrug this week with either silence or, as in the case of Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a tepid pushback.
“I’m not going to say he’s being racist,” Bacon told NBC’s Meet The Press Sunday when asked whether he thought Tuberville’s comments crossed a line. “But I wouldn’t use that language, be more polite.”
Tuberville, a former NCAA football coach at Auburn University, said Democrats “want crime because they want to take over what you got.”
“They want to control what you have,” he added during the rally in Nevada held by former president Donald Trump. “They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”
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USA TODAY spoke with registered Republican voters who did not want to respond to Tuberville’s comment about linking reparations to crime. The Alabama GOP, Republican National Committee and Sen. Tuberville’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Calls for reparations for descendants of African slaves have been around for decades and have grown in recent years, but there’s been little movement in Congress on the issue, even among Democrats. Reparations could involve an apology for slavery, payments, land grants and more.
Other voters, civil rights leaders and political experts who spoke with USA TODAY excoriated Tuberville’s comments, saying they were shocked but not surprised by the Alabama lawmaker for connecting concerns over violent crime in the country to making amends to the descendants of African slaves.
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“We come from a country of both bipartisan civil rights activism and bipartisan racism, but we seem to be trending toward this [Republican] party, it seems, to be almost the party of the Ku Klux Klan of old,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta NAACP.
Andrew Thompson, an assistant professor of political science at the George Washington University, said U.S. politicians have a long history of using coded racial messaging.
He said crime is often associated with people of color in the minds of white voters. But that by combining those anxieties with reparations, it is hard for supporters to deny Tuberville was trying to activate and motivate certain reactions from a mostly white audience.
“The mention of reparations, it’s pretty clearly targeting Black Americans,” he said.
‘The same of what we’ve seen’
When Harris, the Louisiana State University expert, heard Tuberville’s comments, she thought he was “fanning the flames of hate” and demonizing African Americans.
Harris said once Trump won the election in 2016, it gave people license to be openly racist.
“I think that those ideals have always been there,” she said. “Those ideologies have been there, but people have just been given permission to say what they want.”
Lawmakers using racist rhetoric is becoming a norm, agreed NAACP Alabama President Benard Simelton, who said this has become part of the GOP platform.
“The Republican party is doing more to divide us between races in this country than I have seen certainly since the 60s and 70s and we can no longer continue to live with those type of remarks going unchallenged,” he said.
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Simelton said lawmakers use racist rhetoric not only because it is what they believe but also because they want constituents to hear it and react, referring to cheers from the crowd after Tuberville made his remarks.
“They use that to give bait to their constituents and anyone that will listen,” he said.
The NAACP Alabama chapter denounced Tuberville’s comments and asked football players who once played for him to call on their former coach to condemn his remarks.
“All those football players that ran up and down the field at Auburn and across this country to make him a successful coach, he should be ashamed of himself,” Simelton said.
But Florida GOP Rep. Byron Donalds, one of two Black Republicans in the U.S. House, told The Washington Post that liberal policies have led to rampant crime. He defended Tuberville by saying the former football coach has helped Black people more than his political opponents have.
“Crime is top of mind for Americans due to soft-on-crime policies and progressive prosecutors in liberal cities,” he told The Post on Monday. “As a coach and mentor to countless Black men, Tommy Tuberville has done more to advance Black lives than most people, especially in the Democratic Party.”
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Reparations a divisive issue among Blacks, whites
Calls for the country to make amends for slavery, whether through direct payments, land grants or other resources, have been debated since the end of the Civil War.
Polling on the subject has shown a deep racial split with the vast majority of whites opposing the idea.
A 2021 UMass-Amherst survey showed 72% of white Americans saying they are against cash payments. The same poll found 86% of Black Americans favored the idea.
Simelton said he finds it reprehensible that a sitting senator made racist remarks that drew parallels between reparations and crime.
“To relate crime to people who want reparations, that’s not only (misrepresenting) what African Americans stand for, it’s a mischaracterization of what we really want for our people,” he said.
Some of the voters USA TODAY reached out to in the wake of Tuberville’s comments expressed dismay at what he said, but added how they were not surprised either.
Nichole Nelson, a 42-year-old computer systems engineer from DeSoto, Texas who is a registered Democrat, said Tuberville’s comments were “blatantly racist” in her view. She said centuries of slavery have locked African Americans out of opportunities, and importantly the ability to accrue wealth.
“Right now, there’s millions of white American households who have 50% to 100% more in their savings than the average Black household,” Nelson, who is half Black and Native American, told USA TODAY. As of 2019, the median white household held nearly eight times more than a Black household, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
“And why is that? Because they have a history of being able to have generational wealth that has been categorically denied from Black people.”
Dorothy Savoy, a 56-year-old Navy veteran from Houston, Texas, who is a registered independent, said lawmakers such as Tuberville don’t understand the suffering Black Americans like her endured during slavery or what is owed to their descendants.
“I would like to think I would be or could be numb to it, but I am not because of the simple fact that my ancestors built this country on their backs,” she said. “But once again, here is a white supremacist who doesn’t believe or think descendants of African American slaves deserve reparations.”
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Imhotep Royster, a 36-year-old labor attorney from Oakland, California, said the issue of reparations is more of a “niche” issue that hasn’t come in the 2022 midterm debates he’s watched.
“It’s pure, inarticulate racism,” he said. “We’ve gone beyond dog whistles to inelegantly just making explicit appeals to white racial resentment.”
Royster, who is Black and a registered Democrat, said he found it ironic that Tuberville inserted the issue into the national conversation given that the senator coached college athletes.
“I mean, he’s a person who became a millionaire off the backs of unpaid players who were largely and disproportionately Black athletes in the exploitative enterprise known as college football,” he said.
Last year, Tuberville told a reporter that he believed university scholarships and other financial awards offset any debate about paying NCAA players, adding, “nobody’s going hungry as a college athlete.”
“My reaction was anger at first,” Savoy said. “And then it was sadness because they just don’t think we deserve it, they don’t get it and they’ll just never get it.”
Asked about Tuberville’s comments, Tom Richards, 61, a registered Republican who is white from Washington, D.C., said he agrees that Democrats are soft on crime.
“They can’t stand liberty. They don’t understand it. They don’t appreciate it and they hate it,” he said.
Racial resentment ahead of midterms
Tuberville wasn’t the only GOP lawmaker who was fanning the flames of racial resentment this past week.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, accused the Biden administration of allowing undocumented immigrants in the country during an Arizona rally on Sunday.
“Joe Biden’s five million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture,” she said. “And that’s not great for America.”
Many pointed out how the comments parallel the so-called “Great Replacement Theory” a white nationalist conspiracy theory that argues non-white immigrants are deliberately being used to replace white Americans.
Thompson, the George Washington University professor, said GOP officials are adopting more of this language because of the belief in “demographic determinism” that assumes America’s changing face benefits liberal-leaning groups and parties.
“There’s a kind of assumption made that people of color equals Democrat,” he said.
As the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, Thompson said, these sort of appeals to white voters will become more overt, and commonplace. He said the country will have to be watchful to guard against those impulses in the coming years.
“Just because the country is changing, doesn’t mean that people need to feel threatened,” Thompson said. “But then when they are essentially instructed or encouraged to feel a sense of stress, that is what can run completely roughshod over democratic norms.”
With four weeks to go until the midterms, Simelton is concerned comments by Tuberville, who is not up for reelection, might be forgotten when voters cast their ballots.
“As they hear more of these racist comments, we’re asking: Is this really what they want for America? Is this the kind of rhetoric that they want our politicians, our elected leaders to be shared with the rest of the world? Is this who we want leading us in the future?,” he said. “Hopefully, this will make more African Americans go to the polls on Nov. 8.”