During most of the Republican National Convention, when Republicans talked about race, their target audience did not include black people. And (with the exception of Lynne Patton, whom we’ll get to in a second) when they did, their strategy was their typical one — inoculate themselves from charges of racism by reminding listeners that the GOP is “the party of Lincoln,” who freed the slaves, and maybe cherry-pick a quote from the conveniently dead Martin Luther King Jr. “Real” racism was consigned to the sepia-toned highlight reel of stuff that America has defeated. When racism was talked about in the present tense, it was either fake — a strategy used by Democrats to “divide” us — or an aberration.
Take Ted Cruz’s reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. First, he praised Alton Sterling’s family for “bravely [calling] to end the violence,” weaseling out of mentioning the reason we know the name Alton Sterling in the first place. Then he praised the families at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church for forgiving Dylann Roof, calling Roof a “hateful, bigoted” murderer. He deceived no one in reserving his language of condemnation for a killing not committed by a police officer, and reserving his praise for a black family forced to disavow the actions of others. In both cases, the message is clear — to the extent that racism is a real, present problem, the solution is for black people to forgive and forget.
David Clarke Jr., sheriff of Milwaukee County and a black police officer who has built his reputation on his willingness to endorse anti-black rhetoric, dispensed with rhetorical games. He’s the guy who said that Black Lives Matter would “join forces with ISIS,” so subtlety isn’t really his jam. He cheered for innocent verdicts for police officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray, then bluntly called the Black Lives Matter movement “anarchy.” Both Clarke and Cruz employ Martin Luther King Jr. and the past of the civil rights movement as a tool with which to diminish the present incarnations of civil rights leaders and the civil rights movement.
Lynne Patton, a black woman who is vice-president of the Eric Trump Foundation, took a different tack. Patton had entered the fray of the presidential campaign before, making an emotional video defending Donald Trump from charges of racism. Her speech at the convention was in the same vein, vouching for Trump’s non-bigot bona fides and acting as an emissary from him to minorities. But along the way, she illustrated the poverty of courage in the Republican message to black people on race.
She opened her remarks by talking about the events of last month. She began, typically enough for a Republican, by mentioning the attack on Orlando by a “radical Islamic terrorist,” but weirdly for a Republican audience, specified that this attack was against the “LGBTQ community.” She then totally overturned the Republican narrative frame on police shootings by referring to the “senseless deaths” of “young black men in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and far too many places around this country.” The last event in this litany of tragedy from the last month was the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Casting the police killings of black people as an attack on the ideals on which America is founded, and civic order itself, is a bold move to make in front of a Republican audience. And, in this context, putting it on par with the assassination of police officers only makes her denunciation of the killings of black people stronger. This is the identity erasure of the “All Lives Matter” counter-slogan flipped on its head — if black lives do not matter, then no lives matter.
“Sadly though, there is no one person in this room that can deny that, historically, black lives have mattered less. My life mattered less. And whether we like it or not, there are people out there who still believe this to be true,” Patton continued. The convention crowd was silent at these words. Patton did not set out to indict the Republican Party; she was there to pitch the convention crowd on her boss. But the fact that her modest claim of an obvious truth felt jarring and radical delivered from a GOP stage condemned the Republican Party and the way they choose to speak to black people about race.