USA TODAY US Edition
The GOP should look to Douglass and Kemp on racial policy
Great Replacement Theory seeps into media
The mass shooting in Buffalo has drawn attention to the deeply pernicious “Great Replacement Theory,” a theory boosted by the Far Right and its allies at Fox News and some conservative media.
Tragically, the GOP, the party of Lincoln, is making the same mistakes the old Democratic Party did after the Civil War. They are becoming a party whose modern legacy is being defined by violent white supremacists. If we are ever going to stop this sort of home-grown white supremacist terrorism, it is going to take all of our leaders doing everything they can.
It is time for national Republicans to go to Buffalo and reflect on the racist mass killing there, as well as the lives of great Republicans Frederick Douglass and Jack Kemp, who were both connected to that area.
Douglass was born into slavery and became one of the greatest anti-slavery crusaders. He gave important abolitionist speeches in Buffalo and lived in nearby Rochester, where a statue of him has been repeatedly vandalized in recent years.
Kemp was a former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills who ran for president as a Republican and a card-carrying member of the NAACP.
The young man charged with Saturday’s killings was allegedly inspired by racist and anti-Semitic theories about powerful forces scheming to replace white people in this country with Black people and immigrants.
A deadly theory on race
The Great Replacement Theory is deadly. It has inspired previous mass murderers who killed Jewish people in Pittsburgh, Latinos in El Paso, and Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. It radicalizes lost young men who prowl toxic corners of the internet.
And it is poisoning the minds of millions of Americans who now hear it being promoted by irresponsible elected officials and cable TV personalities.
The fear at the root of the Great Replacement Theory is a very old one. In the 19th Century, Douglass recognized and directly addressed the fears that white Americans would be unable to survive or sustain their dominance if the country granted full equality to Black people or welcomed immigrants from China.
Douglass understood that these sentiments struck at the heart of the American ideal. In an 1869 speech called “Our Composite Nation,” he called out those who saw racial and religious differences as a weakness rather than a national strength. He said that fears “that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect.” Regarding immigrants, the Black Republican said, “we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions.”
Douglass called on Americans to expand their vision of what America could be and to welcome the full equality of everyone who could strengthen the young country that had just been through the devastating Civil War.
“Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government, world embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the most perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen,” he said.
Americans today urgently need to hear that kind of vision from our elected officials – not small-minded pandering to fear and bigotry.
I want to be clear that a vision of an America strengthened by diversity and renewed by immigrants does not have to divide us along partisan lines as it does too often today. Although the Republican Party is on the verge – some of my friends would say long past that point – of becoming a white supremacist party, there is still time for reflection and change.
If Republican leaders visit upstate New York, they should reflect on Douglass’s vision of a country whose growth and strength are nourished by a confident embrace of diversity.
And they could reflect on the words of Kemp, who when asked to explain the seeming distance between his approach to race and that of his colleagues, responded, “I can’t help but care about the rights of the people I used to shower with.”
This latest brutality gives those with media platforms and political power a responsibility to reckon with the twin evils of mass violence and racial, ethnic and religious heritage. We are all capable of growth and clarity and courage. And we desperately need all of them from our nation’s leaders.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and professor of the practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a former national president of the NAACP. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” will be published by Harper Collins in December 2022. Follow him on Twitter @BenJealous.