The campaign of Karen Handel—the Republican in a runoff against Jon Ossoff for Georgia’s 6th District seat—took a hit this week thanks to an incredibly impolitic move by her husband, Steve.
Steve Handel shared an image on Twitter that asked voters to support his wife in her U.S. House of Representatives race so that they can “free the Black slaves from the Democratic Party plantation.”
He later deleted the tweet, but has not offered any sort of apology, according to the Atlanta Black Star. His wife’s campaign claimed that the retweet was a “mistake”—he “tweeted something that he didn’t pay a lot of attention to, thinking it was just an early vote message.”
Sure, pal. Who among us hasn’t accidentally retweeted something horrifically racist and then refused to apologize for it. He’s not a bigot. He’s just confused.
“HANDEL WILL FIGHT FOR MINORITIES TO EXCEL,” the offensive image screams. Alongside a picture of Karen Handel is an image of an affable-looking Black man in a suit. The text above the Black man’s photo says, “Criticizing Black kids for obeying the law, studying in school, and being ambitious as ‘acting White’ is a trick the Democrats play on Black people to keep them poor, ignorant, and dependent.”
And the words below read: “Free the Black slaves from the Democratic Party plantation. Isn’t it Time?”
Whew. That’s a lot.
But it’s also nothing new.
Setting aside the bizarre claim that Democrats criticize Black kids for studying or being ambitious, a claim that doesn’t warrant a response other than a sharply upraised middle finger, the old “Democrats want to keep Blacks on the Democratic plantation” is not new either. It’s a sentiment steeped in ahistorical and racist claptrap.
It’s an old canard that plays on the rank ignorance of a shocking number of conservatives who claim that Lincoln—a Republican—freed the slaves, that Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan, and that Martin Luther King was a Republican in order to make some observation about the political landscape as it exists today. “We love Black people and we always have!” seems to be an idea that modern-day Republicans have either tricked themselves into believing or a story they think Black people are unintelligent enough to fall for.
Here’s why: First of all, they ignore that the party lines of the late 19th century are not the party lines of the 21st century. After the Civil War ended, Southern whites were none too pleased with Republican Reconstruction efforts. And it was precisely due to those Reconstruction efforts that a large number of newly freed Black persons were Republicans. But the “Republicans freed the slaves” crowd ignores these historical facts (and that Lincoln was more concerned with saving the country than actually ending slavery).
They also ignore the “Southern strategy,” Nixon’s plan to use racist appeals to attract Southern white voters to the Republican Party. Likewise, they don’t seem to remember the political white flight that led the Dixiecrats to flee the Democratic Party in the late 20th century because again, Southern whites were not enamored of any efforts to improve Black Americans’ lives. This time the offender was not Reconstruction, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Quite simply, in the 1960s, the Democrats became the party that championed civil rights and women’s rights while the Republicans turned their backs on their party’s Reconstruction history of imperfect racial progressivism and regressed into white supremacy like a tortoise into its shell.
It is preposterous to claim, therefore, that modern-day conservatives are the progenitors of the Civil Rights Act; that they opposed the KKK; or that their ideological forefathers were in favor of ending slavery, as Ted Cruz, for example, has argued.
In fact, that’s not true. The Republican Party that “freed the slaves” was indeed the party that tried to move the United States closer to a multiracial democracy, but that didn’t stop Republicans from holding racist views about their new Black political allies. And in the wake of the Civil War, Southern Democrats, the ideological predecessors of the current Republican Party, formed the KKK.
Before you say “Not all Republicans!” let’s acknowledge that racism and anti-Blackness know no party. But, generally, support for civil rights and progressive reforms has been a liberal value, not a conservative one.
Such history lessons elude today’s conservatives, however. They like to cast themselves as the saviors of Black people or as having some deep-seated appeal to Black people despite neither of those facts being even remotely true. “Lincoln freed the slaves!” and “Martin Luther King was a Republican!” are the clarion cries of conservatives who think Black people are too stupid to understand history.
But setting aside concerns about the glaring ahistorical nature of Steve Handel’s tweet, my question is this: After Handel and her husband free us poor hapless Negroes from the Democratic plantation, where are we supposed to go? Are we supposed to rush into the outstretched arms of Republicans? The same Republicans who think—according to Handel’s tweeted image—that Black people now are “poor, ignorant, and dependent”?
The same Republicans who think that Black people want “free stuff,” as Mitt Romney inelegantly put it during his failed presidential candidacy after giving a speech in front of the NAACP?
According to the Free Stuff Republicans, there’s a culture of laziness in the Black community. Black people simply don’t want to work. Instead, they sit in their government-subsidized housing, collect welfare, and push out more and more kids so they can collect more and more welfare while refusing to get a real job. (Notably, many of the Free Stuff Republicans are also Black Genocide Republicans—those who believe that Black women are perpetuating some sort of self-genocide thanks to the high abortion rate in the Black community. How Black women can simultaneously be birthing too many babies and aborting too many babies is an unsolvable mystery.)
These conservative stereotypes about Black people are nonsense, of course. But believing the absolute worst about Black people makes it easier for conservatives to enact policies that further harm Black people. After all, it would be pointless to try positive policy interventions for shiftless people who just want a handout.
Republicans ignore policies that would help Black Americans based on gross stereotypes about Black people being worthless moochers. Why should Republicans enact policies that would, for example, provide cost-free access to contraception, which is a scientifically proven method of reducing unplanned pregnancy rates? Or fully fund public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps), instead of slashing tens of billions of dollars from the program? Or end onerous and ineffective drug testing requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare recipients if Black Americans are simply going to use taxpayer money to buy Cadillacs and weed?
This is the party that Steve Handel wants Black Americans to embrace?