by Kyle Barry, LDF Policy Counsel
In tweets and statements, Senate Republicans have emphatically distanced themselves from President Trump’s morally bankrupt response to the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. When Trump blamed “both sides” and said that “many fine people” were among the torch-bearing neo Nazis, the bipartisan rebuke was swift. Jeff Flake said that “we cannot accept excuses for white supremacy.” Orrin Hatch said that “we should never hesitate to call out hate whenever and wherever we see it.” And Lindsey Graham criticized Trump for responding in a way that earned “praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country.”
These are encouraging words, but Senators must back them up with real action. They could start with their constitutional obligation to advise and consent on nominations, and ensure that our courts and government agencies do not become engines of racial division. So far, however, the Republican-controlled Senate has served as a rubber stamp for Trump’s nominees, propelling into power judges and executive officials selected precisely because they will advance Trump’s broader anti-equality and anti-civil rights agenda. If Senate Republicans are serious about fighting racism and suppressing the white nationalist movement that Trump has emboldened, their words of disapproval must be matched by votes on the Senate floor.
At this point, their failure to do so is glaring. Last month, every Republican Senator (save for the absent John McCain) voted to confirm John Bush to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bush’s record includes a surfeit of sexist, homophobic, and racist comments, and support for discriminatory policies. Bush also showed disregard for Black victims of police violence and used his blog to share stories from far-right websites that promote racist hate speech and the birther conspiracy, long peddled by Trump, that President Obama was not born in the United States.
In the past, such extremist views were disqualifying for judicial nominees. In 1986, a Republican Senate rejected Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship because he had characterized civil rights advocacy as “un-American” and prosecuted African-American voting rights activists for their work to increase Black voter turnout. But this year every Republican in the Senate — along with Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted to confirm Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. The result? In just seven months, the Justice Department has retreated from policing reform, defended discriminatory voting restrictions, revived the failed war on drugs, and laid the groundwork to undermine equal opportunity in education through attacks on affirmative action.
There is also Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, confirmed with the votes of 50 Republican Senators and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence, who has opposed equality and civil rights protections for students at every turn. She has asked to cut funding for the Department’s Office of Civil Rights and drastically narrowed the scope of civil rights enforcement. In congressional testimony, DeVos even questioned whether schools that receive federal funding must comply with federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination.
Part of the problem has been conservatives’ reluctance to acknowledge that we must remain vigilant to confine and eradicate racism. They prefer the view that our nation’s long struggle with discrimination, to the extent it is remembered at all, is now behind us, and that the effects of segregation will disappear if we simply ignore them. That is how we end up with Supreme Court decisions like Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case that gutted the Voting Rights Act on the assumption that it is no longer needed — a theory Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
But the violence in Charlottesville and the president’s response to it have thrust our present-day fight against racial intolerance into the open. Dog whistles have turned back into bullhorns. And for the Senators whose eyes have been opened by this moment, there are opportunities to show real leadership by opposing unfit nominees.
There is a nominee to the Court of Federal Claims, Damien Schiff, who once wrote that he would have “objected to an anti-racism curriculum being taught in 1950s Arkansas” because at that time the propriety of racism remained debatable. He also wrote that Supreme Court decisions upholding affirmative action repeated the same mistakes of Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” doctrine, and Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans. Two other nominees, Thomas Farr to the Eastern District of North Carolina and Stephen Schwartz, another Court of Federal Claims nominee, defended North Carolina’s package of voting restrictions that the Fourth Circuit found “target[s] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Members of the Senate must do more than condemn racial hatred and say Trump is wrong. It is not enough to say that racism has no place in America while at the same time casting vote after vote for nominees that enable and advance a discriminatory policy agenda. Actions speak louder than words, and Americans are listening.