It is no secret that Republicans often flounder when confronted with racial issues. It’s not easy to be presented in the mainstream press as the “racist party.” But at a Heritage Foundation event this week, Ed Gillespie, the former GOP candidate for governor in Virginia, not only tackled the question, he knocked the answer out of the park, and created a template for all conservatives.
As we all know now, the Democrat who defeated Gillespie while painting Republicans as racists found himself mired in a blackface scandal. Ralph Northam will survive whatever role in racist 1980s Southern campus behavior he engaged in. That ought to tick off Gillespie, but when asked about it, he took no shots at Northam. Instead, he elucidated a nuanced approach to his state’s relationship to race that was absolutely admirable.
— Heritage Foundation (@Heritage) February 22, 2019
At the event, the moderator asked Gillespie, who was in the audience, to talk about how responsible citizens in Virginia should respond to the recent revelations about the governor. His answer should be the prototype for how conservatives talk about race and racism in today’s America. He first acknowledged the pain racism causes. Too many conservatives assume this is a given, and don’t say the words. He was right to.
“Virginia and Virginians, from our very founding, have been at the forefront of American history,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve always been on the right side of American history– in fact, we’ve been on the wrong side many times.” Gillespie went on to point out how often Virginia has been at the forefront of the civil rights movement: “We have much to be proud of, we have a long way to go.”
Gillespie is getting at something important here, something conservatives need to pay attention to and embrace. We are the ones in a position to look at America’s history of racism in a nuanced and useful way. What we learned from the Northam blackface incident is that the left shouts at clouds over what kinds of racism are disqualifying. Every Democrat called for Northam to step down. Yet he persisted.
Gillespie gets it. The answer here is not to tear people down for racist acts or statements, but to understand the tension that underlies American history regarding race. Seated next to Gillespie, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, was another former RNC chairman, Michael Steele. Steele, a black man, and one very critical of the current administration, nods approval throughout much of Gillespie’s remarks. The remarks are good, because they ask us to be our best.
Towards the end of his remarks, Gillespie talks about Black Lives Matter, and he makes an essential point. He says that like many of us he scoffed at first, because of course all lives matter. But he realized that he he never felt the need to say white lives matter, while many of his fellow citizens do feel the need to say black lives do. Why?
That’s it — that is Ed Gillespie getting it. It’s him understanding that racism is real, exists, and needs to be fought. If Republicans can bottle this and send it to every candidate, including maybe the president, they should. It’s important.
Gillespie has laid out a very effective way for Republicans to talk about race in the United States. I hope many pay attention to it. Racism is not something to be mocked or ignored. It is not something to be downplayed or denied. It a thing that conservatives can really fight, with a well-rounded understanding of where it comes from and how to defeat it. Good on Gillespie for pointing us all in the right direction.