WASHINGTON — After nearly a year of mass nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, Democrats, with the backing of President Biden, are pushing sweeping changes aimed at narrowing racial inequality — including a reparations measure that previously was shunned by both parties out of fear it was too controversial.
This push on civil rights has so far attracted zero Republican votes, however, while GOP party leaders spent last week tamping down a move by a handful of their more extreme members to form a caucus dedicated to celebrating “Anglo Saxon” heritage.
Even with Donald Trump out of the White House — and polls showing more Americans supportive of racial justice measures than in the past—the gap between the parties on issues of race remains wide.
While battling for reelection, Trump loudly opposed renaming military bases named after Confederate generals and darkly warned his supporters that their “heritage” was under attack — a dog whistle to white nationalists that seemed to be aimed at keeping his base activated for November. After he lost, scores of his supporters, including some touting racist or anti-Semitic slogans, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to keep him in power.
Some moderate Republicans hoped Trump’s defeat would lead to an opportunity for a new direction on race for the party, and note that Republicans in Congress defied Trump on the Confederate military bases and passed their own criminal justice measure in 2018. Trump’s gains with Latino voters in November also led some in the GOP to propose rebranding as the party of the multiracial working class. But since his loss, Republicans have spent much of the past few months talking about “cancel culture” and “wokeness” — both objections to what they frame as Democratic overreaction to racism.
“Their response to racial justice is culture war,” said Michael Steele, who became the first Black chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2009 but later turned into a fierce Trump critic. “When you raise concerns about how African Americans perceive the criminal justice system, instead of leaning into that and saying, ‘Tell me more, let me understand, here are some potential solutions,’ we get, ‘What about Dr. Seuss?’”
Last month, Democrats in the House passed a police bill named after George Floyd that would ban choke holds and allow people to sue police officers over misconduct, as well as a sweeping voting rights bill that would, among other things, restore voting rights to those who had served time in prison.
And just last week, House Democrats advanced a bill that would form a commission to study reparations for the descendants of enslaved people — passing the measure out of committee for the first time in the bill’s 30-year history.
Neither measure won any Republican votes. (One House Republican voted for the police bill but said it was by accident and later changed the official record to reflect his intention to vote no.)
“Considering this administration has not hit the mark of 100 days, I think they have done a great job of changing the political landscape, the dialogue and giving more hope around things that could be possible,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP.
Biden also has one of the most diverse cabinets in history, and he signed an executive order dedicated to ensuring the federal government promotes racial equality. He also endorsed the commission to study reparations, an issue both Democratic and Republican presidents have stayed far away from due to its relative unpopularity among Americans.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the Center for Popular Democracy, a grass-roots liberal group, said the movement around racial justice in the past year has created “a moment where transformation is really possible” — and that the Biden administration appears to want to seize that moment.
Among some Republicans in Congress, the moment is being processed differently.
This month, a handful of Republicans led by Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona sought to form an “America First Caucus” inspired by Trump’s agenda. A draft document of the group’s mission statement, first published by Punchbowl News, said the caucus would celebrate the country’s “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and portrayed immigration as an “existential” threat to that heritage. The language echoed the “great replacement” conspiracy theory popular among white supremacists, which posits that elites are attempting to make the country less white for political gain.
The reaction among other Republicans was swift. John Boehner, the former Republican House Speaker, called it “one of the nuttiest things” he had ever seen and said Republicans should celebrate the country being a “melting pot.” House minority leader Kevin McCarthy swiftly shut down the fledgling movement.
“The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln & the party of more opportunity for all Americans — not nativist dog whistles,” he tweeted.
Greene and others walked away from the plan, claiming they were not aware of the “Anglo Saxon” wording and hadn’t read the mission statement.
But the sentiment behind the group continues to animate many in the base and can be heard on Fox News, where the network’s star host Tucker Carlson has been telling his millions of viewers that Democrats are plotting “demographic change” to dilute their votes.
Still, some Republicans were encouraged by how quickly party leaders squashed the fledgling caucus.
“It’s a problem that the party still faces, but I’m actually heartened over what I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks,” said Doug Heye, a Republican political consultant and former RNC spokesman. “It was over as soon as it started. And that’s a good sign for the party moving forward.”
And although no Republicans in the House have supported the recent actions on racial justice, there are signs of life in the Senate. Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and other lawmakers are negotiating to alter the House’s police overhaul bill in order to garner GOP support.
“I think we are on the verge of wrapping this up in the next week or two, depending on how quickly they respond to our suggestions,” Scott, who pushed his own police bill last year that Democrats rejected, told reporters. These suggestions include rolling back provisions in the legislation that would allow citizens to sue police officers for misconduct and to ban choke holds, though it’s unclear if Democrats would accept such major concessions.
But Republicans in both chambers have been outspoken in their criticism of studying reparations and of the voting rights measure. Republicans on the state level are pushing dozens of measures to restrict voting, citing Trump’s false claims of mass fraud in 2020.
Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, suggested the reparations commission would be biased in favor of deciding on monetary reparations, given that many of its members would be selected by Democrats.
“Spend $20 million for a commission that’s already decided to take money from people who were never involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who were never subject to the evil of slavery,” Jordan said at the hearing. “That’s what Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing.”
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the bill’s sponsor, cast the measure as a key step to “cure racism” in the country.
A recent Washington Post poll found 65 percent of Americans oppose the idea of paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, with a wide gap between races in opinion. Two-thirds of Black people support reparations, but just 20 percent of white people do.
Anne Bailey, a historian at Binghamton University and an expert on the Atlantic slave trade, said she hopes that members of both parties will be open to hearing the case for why reparations are owed, and points out it is not a political issue.
“The enslaved people in the past and their descendants did not contribute to the making of a country that was just Democratic or just Republican — they contributed to the entire country,” Bailey said. “We have to try to persuade everyone that this fight is a fight for all of us.”
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.