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The Criminal Justice Bill Shows Where the GOP Is on Race

It wasn’t always this way for the party of Lincoln

Sen. Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, may have gotten his party’s backing for the criminal justice bill, Curtis writes. But where were his GOP colleagues when he tried to block the confirmation of Thomas Farr? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, may have gotten his party’s backing for the criminal justice bill, Curtis writes. But where were his GOP colleagues when he tried to block the confirmation of Thomas Farr? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Sen. Tim Scott, Republican from South Carolina, was optimistic after the Senate passed an amended bill this week that makes bipartisan progress on an issue — criminal justice reform — that has divided lawmakers for years.

Scott, an original co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement: “By cutting recidivism, encouraging job training, education and mental health and substance abuse treatments for incarcerated individuals, and making our criminal justice system both smarter and tougher, we have taken a positive step forward.”

The bill is considered a First Step, as it is named, toward addressing inequities in the system that disproportionately affect African-Americans and the poor, in everything from arrests to sentencing, and have contributed to a mass incarceration crisis. Criminal justice advocates will also point out that the changes are modest and apply only to the federal system, which truly makes this a first step. Yet it’s something.

In embracing the bill, which is headed to the House for approval, GOP lawmakers finally listened to arguments that the system discriminates after ignoring those pleas for fear of looking soft on crime — fears that afflicted some Democrats too.

But is their action just a blip, a singular moment for a party that has shed the support of minorities since welcoming rather than rejecting voters hostile to civil rights, particularly by using a Southern strategy that has helped turn that region red? (It’s a situation President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, predicted when he signed those landmark bills in the 1960s.)

Though Scott had support from many fellow Republicans and President Donald Trump, as well as Democrats who have sought reform for years, the only African-American Republican in the Senate did not have that kind of GOP backing last month when he opposed the nomination of Thomas Farr to a federal judgeship. Farr’s involvement with the racially tinged campaigns of former North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, plus Farr’s more recent defense of a state voter ID bill tossed out by the courts for targeting minority voters, were too much for the senator.

His party is “not doing a very good job of avoiding the obvious potholes on race in America,” Scott said, while Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who might have listened to the concerns of his colleague, instead dismissed them as “utterly false character assassination nonsense.”

Crying in the wilderness

Other Republicans have sounded warnings similar to Scott’s.

Loss has certainly loosened Mia Love’s tongue. “Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home — or at least make them feel like they have a home,” she said in her concession speech.

Love has earned the right to speak, as well as the scorn of Trump. After the Republicans narrowly lost a House seat in Utah to Democrat Ben McAdams in the midterms, Trump singled her out. The president said her re-election campaign had distanced itself from his administration. “Mia Love gave me no love,” Trump said, sounding vindictive and a little creepy, “and she lost.”

This was the man who had disparaged Haiti, the land of her parents’ birth, when he included it on the list of what he reportedly called “s—hole countries.” Love said those remarks were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values.” So she probably was not expecting much after a loss, something Trump hates to be associated with.

You could say the only black, female Republican in the lame-duck 115th Congress spoke up when she had little left to lose. But who could blame her when Trump, her party’s leader, demands loyalty but shows little and has an inner circle that is mostly white and male?

New leaf?

Does Trump’s support of criminal justice reform, apparently at the urging of son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, signal a change of heart for him and his party when it comes to valuing minorities as part of the Republican base?

It’s easy to see why African-American voters and everyone else might be skeptical.

Trump ran a campaign demonizing immigrants and stoking fear of dystopian inner-city hellscapes, and rode the “birther” lie of former President Barack Obama’s birthplace to the top. His administration’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, encouraged prosecutors to get tougher in enforcing the maximum sentencing guidelines the First Step bill relaxes, while giving police departments a way out of consent decrees agreed on after investigations of misconduct.

Trump had advice for police about how to handle suspects after arrest but before conviction. “Don’t be too nice,” he said.

His language about black and brown asylum seekers hasn’t changed. Nor has his treatment of African-American lawmakers and journalists, women in particular, been anything close to respectful. (The fact that California Rep. Maxine Waters is set to be the next chair of the House Financial Services Committee must be making Trump apoplectic.)

It was doubtful for a while whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would bring the criminal justice reform bill up for a vote.

It was not always this way for the party of Lincoln, which had policies that once enjoyed support from African-Americans; into the 1960s, the GOP at least showed up to ask for their votes.

My Lincoln Republican parents found a home there —that is, until my mother, a party activist, was offended at the stereotypical election season attacks on “welfare queens” and “bucks” buying steaks with food stamps. When Ronald Reagan in a 1980 campaign stop near Philadelphia, Mississippi, championed states’ rights close to where civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964, she recognized the code words and felt downright betrayed.

The moderate voices represented once upon a time by Republican senators such as Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland and Edward W. Brooke III, an African-American, from Massachusetts, no longer have much power. The face of the party now can be a Rep. Steve King of Iowa, re-elected despite racist rhetoric.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, once talked about as a possible GOP presidential nominee, is persona non grata for criticizing his party, often on how it treated African-Americans, Muslim-Americans and others it painted as “the other.”

After Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race, an autopsy recommended a more inclusive GOP tent, and was promptly tossed when it was proven by Trump that division still works.

As Mia Love wrote in The Washington Post: “Many on the right claim that some Americans oppose Republicans because of the proliferation of identity politics. But Republicans who accept that some Americans will inevitably vote Democratic simply because of their physical features or where they live are buying into the identity politics they so stridently object to.”

A microcosm of the country’s divide will be reflected in the incoming Congress, with Democrats, after the midterms, reflecting a diverse America, and the Republican delegation more racially and culturally monolithic than the last.

If they can figure out a way to cooperate to get anything done, anything is possible, even a first step that is not a last step. Or maybe that’s wishing for a holiday miracle.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. 

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