A bizarre but illustrative moment came during last week’s confirmation hearings for Senator Jeff Sessions: As NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks offered testimony, Lindsey Graham (Republican senator from South Carolina) confronted him about the NAACP’s civil rights legislative scorecard.
Graham read scores for several prominent members of Congress, pointedly contrasting the high scores by Democrats with the low scores for Republicans. Graham then leveled the following:
“It means that you’re picking things that conservative Republicans don’t agree with you on and liberal Democrats do. I hope that doesn’t make us all racist and all of them perfect on the issue.
I think the report card says volumes about how you view Republican conservatives. Maybe we’re all wrong and maybe you’re all right. I doubt if it’s that way.”
Did you catch that? Lindsay Graham suspects the NAACP is discriminating against Republicans by giving them low scores on a Civil Rights scorecard. The Republicans, who have built a 60-year platform opposing civil rights and advancing policies that harm people of color.
Opposing Hate is Not Discrimination
It’s surprisingly hard to lay hands on a copy of a recent NAACP scorecard, but their 2009–2010 scorecard lays out the issues they deem important, including predatory lending, opposing school voucher programs, ensuring wage equality, health care reform, and strengthening hate crime laws, among others. As Brooks says in his response, “The ratings are based on legislation, not party affiliation.”
This is of a piece with recent right-wing outrage over fashion designers who announced they would refuse Ivanka and Melania Trump their business. Designer Sophie Theallet, the first such designer, issued a statement explaining her refusal to dress the incoming First Lady: “The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by.”
Non-discrimination laws, like those enforced against homophobic cake artists, do not forbid any person from denying service to any other person. They forbid certain specific types of discrimination, including that based on race, religion, gender, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, and others. The Supreme Court labels these “suspect classifications,” groups of people who are likely to be the subject of discrimination.
Republicans, apparently, believe that racism, sexism, and xenophobia deserve to be protected under the very laws designed to prevent them. Or, more likely, they believe that when those values are so ingrained into a political philosophy that they might be labeled “beliefs,” that political philosophy warrants the same protection against discrimination as, say, a religion.
This is a ludicrous position, however. For the record, there is no legal protection against discrimination based on political affiliation or belief. Nor should there be. Political parties exist for the sole and specific person of taking positions others may find disagreeable to the point where they would refuse association.
I’m certainly not in favor of predicating all commercial services on political affiliation. I don’t want my local deli asking me how I voted before they’ll make me a sandwich. But for an event as momentous as the inauguration, at which much fuss will be made over who produced the First Lady’s attire, a designer has every right to refuse service. Just as the NAACP should be able to announce that every single member of the Republican Party is taking action to harm people of color without being accused of “discriminating” against their oppressors.
There is no specific test to determine whether a group legally constitutes a suspect classification, but the Supreme Court has specified some criteria. Political affiliation meets none of them. It is not an immutable trait; you are not born a Republican, you align with the party based on your political beliefs. Nor is it highly visible, unless you choose to put on a button or a bright red hat. Political parties are by definition not powerless within the political process (particularly laughable for Republicans, in light of recent election results) and while members of political parties may be subject to hostility, to characterize that as stigma is too far to stretch. Political ideas and positions are meant to be subject to scrutiny and rejection; that is their nature and purpose.
It’s been common for some time to hear Republicans in daily conversation claim to be victims of discrimination. It is breathtaking, however, to hear a lawmaker as prominent as Lindsey Graham claim victimhood when his party is called out for its own discriminatory practices. That’s a level of rhetorical normalization that verges on dangerous.
Do not allow Republicans to claim they face discrimination. Do not acquiesce when people equate their loathsome defense of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-gay rhetoric with being born black, or Mexican, or gay, or Muslim. Do not allow oppressors to advance their cause by co-opting the language of the oppressed.
Look at it this way [and indulge the extreme example — it’s meant for illustrative purposes].
Imagine this was Germany in 1936, and Lindsey Graham was seated as a member of the Nazi Party. Imagine the NAACP was a group that advanced the civil rights of Jewish people. Would the Nazis say they were victims of discrimination when that organization gave them poor grades on Jewish rights?
Yes, you may be thinking. They almost certainly would. And that is something you should always remember.
Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, used under Creative Commons license.