“Tuberville’s attempt to downplay and erase the racism of actual racists echoes attempts to downplay the violence of the largely White mob on January 6. More broadly, it’s part of the attempt to erase and downplay the role of race, racism and racists in American history and culture … While Tuberville might not be a student of history, he certainly has learned well the lesson of rewriting history, downplaying racism and absolving White nationalists.” – Nia-Malika Henderson
According to former football coach Tommy Tuberville, who incomprehensibly remains a U.S. Senator, efforts to eliminate white nationalists from the U.S. armed services are “destroying” military readiness and “making this country weaker.”
Eliminating white nationalists, he said, would “do away with most White people in this country, out of the military.”
White nationalists espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation. But is that racism? According to Tuberville, that’s a matter of opinion.
Instead of calling for his resignation, as they should have done in October when he called Black Americans “the people that do the crime,” Tuberville’s colleagues pressured him into conceding that yes, white supremacists who advocate enforced racial segregation are racist.
He has not attempted to explain why he thinks “most White people in this country” fall into the category of white nationalists, or why purging racists from the armed services would destroy military readiness.
Perhaps the larger question is how he can defend “white nationalists” while claiming in the same breath that he is “totally against racism.” That’s easier to explain: Tuberville is part of an extremist campaign to gaslight Americans on racism.
The logic, such as it is, goes like this: If there are white nationalists in the military – and there are – then white nationalists must not be racist because there’s no racism in the military.
Tuberville and his fellow extremists don’t want the electorate to consider them racist. Racism, as a brand, is toxic. So the only politically-acceptable way to condone and perpetuate racist behavior, institutions, and policies is simply to deny that they are racist. How could they be, when systemic racism doesn’t exist?
Realistically, Tuberville and his allies cannot marshal public opinion against efforts to dismantle systemic racism by declaring they want to preserve systemic racism. By framing the movement as an attack on white Americans, Tuberville and his allies hope to fan the flames of racial resentment and white grievance. If they occasionally are force to employ pretzel logic they employ to defend themselves, no matter: the tactic is an appeal to emotion, not facts.
In the 1944 film which gave birth to the term “gaslighting,” a murderous husband persuades his wife that the very real evidence of his criminal activities – noises and flickering gaslights as he searches the attic for jewels he intends to steal – are figments of her imagination and a sign of her derangement.
The injustices that Tuberville’s band of extremists are trying to obscure are no less real. Racial bias and discrimination continue to pervade our economic, educational, criminal justice, and civic institutions. Persuading Americans that they are figments of our imagination gives cover for the continued plundering of the “jewels in the attic” of voting rights, economic and educational opportunity, and bodily autonomy that rightfully belong to us all.
Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.