What John Ashcroft Learned From David Duke
January 22, 2001
by Martin A. Lee
A specter is haunting America -- the specter of neo-racism.
Don’t be fooled by the president’s roster of cabinet choices. Yes, he has appointed a diverse group of Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and women, along with six white male nominees who are not by themselves a majority.
Does this prove that Boy George really is a broad-minded fellow? I don’t think so.
If Bush’s cabinet selections tell us anything, it’s that racial politics has gotten a lot more complicated lately. Civil rights advocates have been put on the defensive by a new breed of right-wing radicals who are adept at
disguising old hatreds with deceptive rhetoric.
Utilizing the seductive verbiage of neo-racism, smooth-talking zealots have learned to camouflage their ideology and mainstream their message. Within these circles, crude racialist formulations are downplayed as a first step
toward articulating a less abrasive political discourse, one that emphasizes “heritage” and "cultural differences" rather than genetics or skin color.
While some contemporary enthusiasts for white supremacy still prefer to dress up and parade around in uniforms, such obvious displays of racism are eschewed by the more sophisticated fanatics who realize that it's best not
to advertise their allegiance to the creed.
John Ashcroft, our mild-mannered attorney general-designate, swears he’s not a racist. “I believe racism is wrong. I repudiate racist organizations. . . I reject them,” Ashcroft proclaimed at his confirmation hearings.
Black Americans, along with many others, are not overly impressed by Ashcroft’s road-to-Damascus conversion to the cause of civil rights. “Policy-wise, John Ashcroft represents the extreme right-wing in American
politics [that defended] racial discrimination,” says David Bositis, an expert on African-American issues at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
“He’s as repugnant to Blacks as Kurt Waldheim [the ex-UN secretary general who fought in a Nazi World War II regiment] is to the Jews,” Bositis explains.
But apparently the all-white Senate does not find Ashcroft, a former member, to be all that repugnant. After the hearings, Democrats and Republicans alike said they expected him to be confirmed as attorney general, even
though he clearly lied about his record as governor of Missouri. Contrary to Ashcroft’s contention that he did not try to block school desegregation in St. Louis, a federal court had ruled that the state of Missouri, while he
held sway as governor, was the “primary constitutional wrongdoer” in efforts to prevent the integration of public schools.
To make the case that he’s not a racist, Ashcroft publicly distanced himself from Southern Partisan, a shrill, neoconfederate journal, which decries race-mixing and glorifies the legacy of slavery. Ashcroft testified that he
was not aware of the magazine’s controversial positions when he granted Southern Partisan an interview in 1998.
That seemed to satisfy a majority of Senators, who tread lightly over the fact that Ashcroft had explicitly acknowledged in this interview that he knew Southern Partisan celebrated the Confederacy. Then-Senator Ashcroft went so far as to thank the journal for helping to “set the record straight.” In particular, he praised the magazine’s defense of “Southern patriots like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.”
Okay, so a few white lies, here and there, and some lingering fondness for old Dixie – that’s not unusual for an American politician. While attorney general-designate Ashcroft was busy mouthing all the requisite pro-civil
rights incantations, Democrats searched in vain to find a “smoking gun,” which would show without a doubt that the he is a certifiable, unreconstructed bigot.
But Ashcroft has never boasted a proclivity for wearing white hoods or divining Aryan runes. When he speaks in tongues, as is his wont, he does not spout the uncouth uber alles idiom of biological pseudo-science. Instead, he
invokes a slippery, neo-racist vernacular about “colorblindness” and “reverse discrimination,” while the befuddled Democrats remain mired in a perpetual torpor. “You can’t undervalue Ashcroft’s mastery of that white
supremacist code,” says John Hickey, director of the Missouri Citizen Education Fund.
Although Ashcroft might not crow about it, he and other Republican spear-carriers have lifted a rhetorical page from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who was praised by Southern Partisan as “a populist spokesperson for a recapturing of the American ideal.” Duke currently hobnobs with neo-Nazis in the U.S. and Russia, while also serving as the elected chairman of a GOP Executive Committee in a Louisiana parish.
Keep in mind that Senator Ashcroft got a 100 percent approval rating from Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, the prominent religious right lobby, which had supported Duke’s 1990 gubernatorial bid in Louisiana. “There's
nothing wrong with black people being proud of their heritage and their race. There's nothing wrong with white people being proud of theirs,” said Duke, who succeeded in giving racism a positive, people-loving spin en route
to gaining a majority of the white vote in his unsuccessful run for statewide office.
Of course, if he mouthed master-race slogans, Duke would have alienated many of his supporters who could identify extremism when garbed in Nazi or Klan regalia, but not when it hides behind the softer, more euphemistic
vocabulary used by right-wing politicians to attack welfare, immigration, and other racially-charged issues.
Thus, Ashcroft and like-minded ideologues do not oppose affirmative action because Negroes are hopelessly inferior. Good heavens, no. So-called compassionate conservatives reject affirmative action because they care so
deeply about African Americans and do not want them to suffer from the tragic stigma of going through life filled with guilt, knowing that they were unfairly assisted by preferential programs that discriminate against
white males. Such is the twisted rationale of neo-racism.
Neofascist leaders in Europe also understand that the white supremacist game can be played in a variety of ways. Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the French National Front, launched his political party 25 years ago while selling
recordings of Hitler's speeches. After languishing on the political margins for many years, Le Pen trimmed his sails to suit the moment by recasting his prejudice as pluralistic pride. David Duke underwent a similar makeover when
he decided to seek public office in Louisiana.
These days, Le Pen feigns concern for the best interests of those who bear the brunt of his racist tirades. "I love North Africans, but their place is in North Africa," he declares. Under the guise of promoting ethnic pluralism
and "the right to difference," Le Pen insists that French natives must protect their unique cultural heritage and Arab immigrants must preserve their own traditions, as well. The only way to do this, Le Pen argues, is to
send all swarthy interlopers back to where they came from.
"Every people has the right to its own identity. Whoever violates this right is playing with fire,” warns Nation Europa, a German neo-Nazi publication. Invoked in such a manner, “the right to difference” seems to vindicate
race-mixing phobias and demands for exclusion. It also underscores the paradox of contemporary racism, which can be expressed either in terms of denying or affirming the identity of another group or person.
Should John Ahscroft be confirmed as the next attorney-general, it will constitute a major victory for the extreme right and a serious set-back for social justice in the United States. It will also signal the triumph of
neo-racism. Cloaked in lingo that appears to favor diversity and equal rights for all, this kindler, gentler form of hatred is far more palatable, and therefore more pernicious, than the discredited white supremacist
ideologies of old.