The debate fell silent Saturday when Ron Paul trotted out of the closet the GOP skeleton of denial: racism.
Initially confronted with "racist" diatribes penned by another writer in a newsletter under his name, Rep. Paul dismissed them as a 20-year-old nonissue. Then, suddenly, as if the 76-year-old libertarian realized that he had nothing to lose, Paul pivoted dramatically away from alleged petit racism of words to gross de jure racism of deeds.
"True racism in this country is in the judicial system," he said in his counterattack to the ABC News panelist at the New Hampshire debate. "And it has to do with enforcing the drug laws.
"Look at the percentages. The percentages of people who use drugs are about the same with blacks and whites. And yet the blacks are arrested way disproportionately. They're prosecuted and imprisoned way disproportionately. They get the death penalty way disproportionately.
"How many times have you seen a white rich person get the electric chair or get, you know, execution?"
This flipping of the script flummoxed the other GOP candidates, who looked betrayed as the audience gazed up in a deafening silence.
Such open admission of deep, structural racism in America is considered heresy among Republicans, white or black — notwithstanding the statistical facts of the matter. The death-penalty bias is also sacrosanct. A few debates ago, a GOP crowd rattled the rafters with applause when Texas Gov. Rick Perry boasted about losing no sleep over executing inmates at a rate of two a month during his entire 10-year reign!
This draconian pace of state killings makes Perry a GOP star while rendering him exhibit A as a practitioner of the judicial excesses his fellow Texan cited in the debate Saturday.
More death row inmates have been freed through DNA testing in Texas than in any other state in the nation, according to the Innocence Project. The 42 prisoners were released from institutions where the majority of death row inmates are either African American or Latino. The black population of Texas is 12 percent.
In one such case, the DNA evidence was so overwhelming that even execution-happy Perry was persuaded to grant the state's first-ever posthumous pardon. The inmate, who died in prison, had spent 13 years on death row for a wrongful rape conviction, followed by a campaign by his family to clear his name.
Nationally, the Nobel Prize-worthy humanitarian research of the Innocence Project has freed 281 wrongfully convicted death row inmates. Undergirding Rep. Paul's observations about the racial disparity of the U.S. criminal-justice system, only 28 percent of those exonerated were white.
This racial skeleton trotted out of the closet not only offended Paul's rivals before the shocked GOP audience; the revelation also seemed to disorient the ABC panel.
Institutionalized racism, apart from the petit charges and countercharges about who said what slur when, has a knack of throwing a wrench into polite, mainstream media discourse. As the other panelists gasped, it fell to ABC's Diane Sawyer to change the subject, never to be continued that night or likely any other. "We want to take a break right now," she said, ticking off a few different topics to be discussed upon their return.
Even Herman Cain — remember him? — contorted himself to be used as a requisite lead pipe against this particular Democratic president. This was no easy trick for the Godfather Pizza dealer.
Dark as a pocket, Cain conspired in the GOP whitewash by, among other shows of loyalty, accusing African Americans of being "brainwashed" for voting for the Democratic Party. And he declared himself to be "an ABC, an American Black Conservative," occasionally breaking out to sing hokey church hymns that would raise nary a brow at a Pat Robertson revival. "He Looked Beyond My Faults," indeed; here, folks, is a lily-white black if ever there was one.
To date, save for an occasional flourish by, say, NBC's Brian Williams, the media seem to be going along with the GOP whitewash. Structurally, they appear unprepared to recognize and pinpoint a discussion about gross institutional racism of the type that a piqued Rep. Paul disclosed in that quick burst fired off in retaliation.
Not a single entity hosting the 14 GOP debates so far has seated a single African American as primary questioner on the panels: not ABC, CNN, Facebook, WMUR, NBC News, the Manchester Union Leader, Fox TV — not even the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
It is most curious in this complex, multiracial republic that such a desperate consortium of GOP candidates, debate hosts, audiences and cross-examiners are working to select a, yes, white family to replace the Obamas and first dog Bo in the White House. Hmmm.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.