The CPAC Race ‘Chaos’ Had a Silver Lining

A debate breaks out at a conservative gathering over "disenfranchised" whites and slavery. Progress?

Poster for a Tea Party group participating in race panel (David Swerdlick)
Poster for a Tea Party group participating in race panel (David Swerdlick)

(The Root) — Before you call me crazy for trying to find the silver lining in the storm clouds that hovered over the “Race Card” panel last Friday at CPAC, keep one thing in mind.

I was there.

And it definitely was, as first covered by Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin, a “shouting match” that had its share of tense moments and was met with “dropped jaws,” as reported by the Daily Beast’s Caitlin Dickson. But it also wasn’t quite the race-baiting free-for-all that it started to sound like after some of the secondhand coverage.

Still, you could also see it as a baby step for a small group of activists who showed up — in theory, at least — to hear how to “Trump the Race Card: Are You Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You’re Not One?” — and instead got a firsthand lesson in why so many Americans feel there’s a not-so-subtle racial undertone in contemporary conservative politics. When confronted with an audience member whose views could be described as white separatist, one or two people clapped approvingly and a few more registered only surprise — but a lot of the Tea Partiers tried to shut him down and took exception to his comments. As Sarlin wrote in a follow-up on Monday, the outburst was met with “a shocked response from many attendees — not applause or cheers.”

In a strange way, maybe that’s a sign of progress.

By now you’ve seen the video with KCarl Smith, creator of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, who gave a talk about the “four life-affirming values” of Douglass (respect for life, respect for the Constitution, belief in limited government and individual responsibility). Smith — who talked to me last year at CPAC — gives a riveting presentation, but he doesn’t really address the bread-and-butter challenge facing Republicans: that in 2012, 93 percent of black voters, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for President Barack Obama.

When he was wrapping up, Smith was engaged by Scott Terry about “young, white Southern males” being “systematically disenfranchised”:

Terry suggested that Douglass, the famed abolitionist and former slave, should have been grateful for “food and shelter” from his former master, and then made the equally jarring statement that in contrast to Douglass’ appeal for cultural integration, he preferred Booker T. Washington’s suggestion (made in 1895) that blacks and whites “be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

And although it’s muffled, you immediately hear the reaction from the rest of the crowd.

There’s a general surprise, and even a few notes of applause. But it seemed to me that there were more attendees who were alarmed by Terry and his associate, Matthew Heimbach (an organizer of the White Students Union at Towson University). When it was over, the debate continued in the hallway, with one woman angrily wagging a finger in Terry’s face and shouting at him. Clearly, not everyone there was interested in being associated with an apologist for slavery.