Mitch McConnell's Verbal Separation of African Americans and Americans Sparks Outrage
Melissa Harris-Perry: It started simply enough, a midweek presser at the Capitol. It was routine. There's no breaking news and a congressional investigation. There was no significant piece of new legislation to announce. This day, like so many others was just another day when the filibuster had obstructed passage of a bill proposed and supported by nearly every representative of the majority party.
On this day, it was the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that lay in ruins at the feet of Senate Republicans [yawns]. It's the kind of democracy-dismantling move whose commonality makes it barely newsworthy these days. Then, Latino Rebels Capitol Hill reporter, Pablo Manríquez stepped to the mic and posed a question to Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
Pablo Manríquez: What's your message for voters of color who are concerned that without the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, they're not going to be able to vote in the midterm?
Mitch McConnell: Well, the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, let's hear that one again.
Mitch McConnell: African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, what's happened next has been epic. Americans took to social media using the #MitchPlease to declare their outrage about Senator McConnell's discursive racial faux pas, which seemed to nullify Black citizenship by eliminating the racial modifier for white Americans. When McConnell compared African-Americans to Americans, it's not like he was performing a complex expression of Du Bois in double-consciousness.
To many, it felt more like a Freudian revelation, that the most powerful Republican lawmaker in the country considers Black Americans to be distinct from real Americans. The heavily populated #MitchPlease isn't quite as pervasive as that time that Kim Kardashian West broke the internet with her paper magazine spread in 2014, but just like Kardashian, Senator McConnell did show his backside and ya'll are not having it. Here's what you told us
Speaker 1: He probably does embody more of the Trump census, the center stage presence where you just say the part that you were thinking out loud, and then later on, just go back and say, "Oh, that's not what I meant," but that's exactly what he meant. It's a racist comment. He's a racist man.
Speaker 2: I think this is just another example of how the US sees anyone that is not white. I think he's representative of what is happening everywhere. It doesn't matter how hard you try to get your citizenship here, or how you have been living here for several generations, if you're not white, then you're not American.
Speaker 3: Nothing surprising about what Mitch said. His mouth said what his heart believes. He just didn't expect it to come out.
Speaker 4: We thought you were still locked in the 19th century, but with your recent comment, now it's clear.
Speaker 5: Since when are African-Americans not Americans? The guy needs to put his white foot back on and go to [unintelligible 00:03:30]. I'm sorry, this is too much the country is too polarized.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hu, okay, Takeaway, just go ahead and take a breath. Now let me be honest, I'm a little less worked-up than many. Maybe it's because I've spent a decade being ritually and digitally dragged by ideological opponents operating in bad faith. Maybe it's because Senator McConnell was born in 1942 in Sheffield, Alabama. A town essentially founded by Andrew Jackson.
I'm pleased that a 79-year-old white man from Sheffield that McConnell really can say African-American without a sneer or stumble. What does interest me deeply? What makes me lean in with curiosity, compassion and concern is the response. I'm utterly captivated by the African-American officeholders, veterans, teachers, parents, community leaders, media professionals, those anonymous and famous young and elderly from every region of the country, posting photos.
Telling their inter-generational stories of citizenship, presence, participation, sacrifice. To me, it feels like watching an entire community producing our long form birth certificates in mass. It's like Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. #MitchPlease ends up resounding like a unified recitation of Langston Hughes.
Speaker 6: I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh and I eat well, and I grow strong. Tomorrow, I will sit at the table when company comes. Nobody will dare say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," then besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I, too am American.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, we begin today's Takeaway with the question, Who, too, is American? I'm joined by Pablo Manríquez, Capitol Hill Correspondent for Latino Rebels. It's great to have you here, Pablo.
Pablo Manríquez: Thank you for having me, Melissa. It's always an honor to be on your show.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you. Also with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who is the Ford Foundation Professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and co-host of the podcast, Some of My Best Friends Are. Welcome back to Khalil.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Thanks so much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pablo, I'm going to come to you. How is it feeling to help break the internet?
Pablo Manríquez: Oh, my gosh, it's such a testament to the power of journalism, because I think for like 99.9% of the people who have heard the Mitch McConnell clip, my voice asking the question, it's just like a disembodied voice. There's something very humbling to that. My mother recognized my voice when she saw it on [unintelligible 00:06:14], which was awesome, but overall, it's very humbling to know that a question from disembodied voice is me, and nobody knows it, but everybody knows the response, and everybody's reacting to the response one way or another.
I think that your assessment of the way it's blown up on the internet is very apt. I absolutely love the poem by Langston Hughes. I think that that is a question that needed to be asked more and more, not just of Mitch McConnell, but of other lawmakers. For example, the day before I asked Mitch McConnell the question, I asked Joe Manchin the question, who is another person obstructing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act from within the Democratic Party.
I asked him, "What do you say to voters of color who are afraid they're not going to be able to vote in the midterm if the John R. Lewis Voting Rights doesn't pass?" He said, "Well, the government will protect them. The government will make sure that they are able to vote." When I would ask about voters of color, pretty much every lawmaker who I asked-- And these were senators. Every senator who I asked said, "Well, African-Americans are X, Y and Z. They're safe." It was like, voters of color all automatically become in the minds of the senators, African-Americans. They have like a knee-jerk reaction to the question, and I think that that's notable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to play one quick thing because McConnell spoke on Friday. Well, he said he was clarifying what he said, let's take a listen.
Mitch McConnell: I want to take an opportunity to offset here to address the outrageous mischaracterization of my history and record on voting rights and race relations as a result of inadvertently leaving out the word almost in my comments the other day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pablo, where does the almost go?
Pablo Manríquez: That's a really good question, because as I understood it, as I read it, he meant almost Americans, so African-Americans are voting in just as high a percentage as almost-Americans, because after he gave that comment. He tripled down on that comment after he initially said it, because the reporters-- Had tips the reporters in Louisville, Kentucky who were asking him that question at the Kentucky Transportation Expo.
They said, "Are you sure you meant to say almost?" He's like, "The word that was omitted was almost," and then he exited the stage and the camera pans to him. I assume somebody who is an advisor to McConnell was-- A woman walked up to him and showed him her cell phone. On his cell phone, you could audibly hear her saying, "You said almost instead of all," [chuckles] and he turned around and he says, "The word that was omitted was all."
I assume what he's saying is African-Americans are voting in just as high a percentage as all Americans, is what he meant to say, but in my opinion, it just made it worse. McConnell is not somebody who often misspeaks too. I think he's really worth saying. He speaks slowly, he speaks deliberately, and most of the time when you catch him in the hallway, he doesn't even acknowledge your presence. He'll walk right through your question.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Khalil, what's going on with McConnell is one thing, what's going on with the response is a bit of something else. I am fascinated by the extent to which-- In a nation right now that is deeply polarized, where a lot of hurtful, painful, jaw-dropping things are said on a regular basis, this one really caught fire. I'm wondering what it tells you about that sense of perhaps disconnectedness, or maybe it actually is a sense of connectedness with the nation. Why did voters of color, why do Black and Latino voters right now feel such a need to respond to this?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: I think when you have perhaps the most powerful politician in Washington, and I'm not speaking of Joe Biden, but in fact Mitch McConnell [laughs] and the juxtaposition. This racialized or racist juxtaposition hits home essentially right at the moment of Dr. King's annual holiday. You've got the convergence of this powerful opponent of racial progress in this country. You've got the annual rituals of celebration of Dr. King, who's been completely whitewashed and sanitized, and whose legacy has been completely inverted 180 degrees by Mitch McConnell himself and his party. Then finally, you have the most recent news of yet the failed efforts to protect voting rights in this country. I think people just emotionally responded, as well they should have.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Khalil, I'm wondering what it also suggests, again, whether for McConnell or in this broader response about the unspoken racialization of the American identity at all points. This idea of the replacement theory, which we know is critical part of how many in the January 6th riots were feeling, "You shall not replace us." Then this battle right now about teaching racialized history in K-12 and even college classrooms. I'm wondering about, can we get to a point where American is not only Jefferson, but Jefferson's children, who were born by an enslaved woman?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Yes, potentially, but we will only get there if people have the right to vote and can actually build the country in that image, meaning that how we socialize children in our schools depends on a curriculum that is honest and truthful and representative of all the threads of the United States history, including Indigenous people from the very beginning. It depends on our ability to create an infrastructure that supports life for everyone in ways that are not extractive as they were built from the very beginning.
The great irony of this moment is, it reveals yet again for anyone who maybe just turned 18 last week and is like, "Oh, now I'm politically-conscious [chuckles] what our country has been." If we want a different country, unfortunately, the pathway to get there is going to pass through what happens at our polls.
The Republican Party knows exactly what it's doing. It was once the Democratic Party many years ago, but for a long time, at least a third to half of this country has been opposed to a real functioning democracy and the potential for what we need to redress since 2013. When John Roberts said something very similar to what Mitch McConnell said is, "We don't need the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act because the southern states don't look as southern and racist as they used to, so Black voters are voting. Why do we need this anyway?" The echoes are just astounding and recurring.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pablo, I want to come back to you on this sticking point around non-white voters or non-white Americans equals African-Americans. Maybe we could talk a little bit here about the limits of a citizenship identity as the requirement for Americanness, or particularly Black-white trajectory and our understanding about what America is composed of. Can you talk to me a little bit about that other aspect of the question that you asked about voters of color, and he went directly to Black folk?
Pablo Manríquez: I think that one of the things you'll find about Republicans generally in the Senate and in the House is that-- I think about the term African-American as something that's antiquated. I'm not Black, but most of my friends who have been involved in this discussion have preferred the term Black. I used voters of color because it's hard to name off every group that would be disenfranchised if the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act didn't pass, and it didn't pass. The concerns I find that people are telling me about whether or not they're going to be able to vote in the midterm are super legit, in some states more than others.
For Republicans to say again and again, often quoting Dr. King that Black people don't know what they're talking about when it comes to their vote, was highly offensive to me, but it's also telling of a Congress. When I say Congress, I don't just mean the elected officials, I mean the entire building, the entire Capitol complex that is entirely too white. The overwhelming majority of people of color who you'll see in the Capitol complex on a daily basis are police, they're service workers. On occasion, you'll find some staffers.
That is changing. For example, this year they have Representative Zoe Lofgren, who's Nancy Pelosi's right-hand woman in the House of Representatives, approved the formation of a Congressional Progressive Staff Association. This was a big deal. Over 500 people signed up right away. Now on Instagram, for example, you have accounts like Dear White Staffers, which is one of the best tipster accounts anywhere on Instagram, if you're trying to work on Capitol Hill, if you're trying to understand just how toxically, white the environment can be for staffers who aren't white in the Capitol.
Dear White Staffers and other account Tired Press Secretary, these are some of the other accounts that have popped up that were unthinkable just a few years ago. I think that one of the things that a comment points out, is just how insular that bubble is, and within that insular bubble, just how white the environment is when you're working as a representative or as a staffer in the Capitol complex, where these decisions are made, that will help or hurt the ability of people throughout the nation to vote and exercise their rights as Americans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's a fascinating perspective and one that obviously most of us don't have, not being insiders within that building or within the culture of what's happening in that space. There was something else about what he said. Khalil, I want to come to you on this because I do think that back-end part of it keeps us from talking about the front-end part, where the senator makes an assessment about voting. He's sort of right and wrong, right?
My inner political science has jumped up screaming and saying, "No, no, I want to address the empirical claim here," because in fact, in 2008 and then in 2012, African-American voting, and particularly for Black women, exceeded turnout for that of white folks. Then in 2016 and 2020, you saw white American voting resurging during these two opportunities to vote for President Trump. In 2020, everybody turned out at some of the highest rates that we have seen in American history. It occurs to me that voter suppression efforts might also suppress some white voters. This is generally bad for democracy.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Yes, but the democracy has been bad for minority interest in this country for a long time. [laughs] That is all too familiar.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are you saying we feel okay about sometimes just making a mess of the whole democratic system, Khalil?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Yes, I think that's what I'm saying. [chuckles] Listen, we have to point out the absurdity of what's going on here. The justification for blocking the protection of votes in federal elections, mind you, is that everyone's voting but in fact, at the state level that everyone voting generated at least 30 bills passed in something like 20 states. He's not even working with reality. If everything was great and we should keep things the same, things aren't the same because they've actually changed at the state level.
Part of this is just keeping up with the lies that come from a party that is not interested in a functioning healthy democracy, as January 6th attest to in their unwillingness to come to terms with or accept a fully-functioning investigative process.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pablo, I have to ask you this question. Do you have a list of other questions that you would like to see your colleagues on the Hill or my colleagues and me asking of elected leaders across the coming year, because, boy, that was a good question.
Pablo Manríquez: This is something I've talked about with some of the other reporters on Capitol Hill and at the White House. I think that one of the things that we have to start doing is just leading with the phrase, "What's your message for voters of color about?" Then the topic that you're covering, because I think that too often we don't center the people who are most impacted by legislation in this case, like the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. What is Joe Biden's message of color for-- Sorry about that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: See, it gets hard.
Pablo Manríquez: I know. The question that I have this week for Joe Biden at the White House, because Congress is in recess, is what is his message for immigrants about the unilateral authority that he is willing to exercise as President of the United States to find some forms of immigrant relief that were promised on the campaign trail? There were 167 questions asked last week at Joe Biden's two-hour press conference in the East Room of the White House and none of the questions were about immigration, not a single one.
The sad thing is that when immigration does come up as a topic, and this is a topic that Latino Rebels covers every single day. We are day-in and day-out on the immigration bit. The sad thing is that when you actually do hear the word immigration or immigrants at a White House press conference, it's always in some attempts to have a "gotcha" moment about the border, like, "How bad do you think you're doing at the border, sir?" but that's not what the topic was during the campaign trail, when he promised immigrants communities that if he won, he was going to help them out.
So far, immigrant communities have not been helped out in the way that he promised. We've done the diligence on the Hill in the last year. We've asked pretty much every senator in the Democratic caucus now in the Senate about what they're going to do for immigration and so far, they've just given us the runaround. At this point, we've probably gotten 75% of the entire United States Senate on the record about immigration and every superstar you can imagine in the House of Representatives.
Again, they give us all these answers, like, "Yes, we support this, we support that." but they don't actually do anything. I think that one of the things that-- The White House staff because we're not members of the White House Press Association, so we're not actually allowed-- Latino Rebels is not members of the White House Correspondents Association, so we are not allowed to go sit in the White House briefing rooms in a chair and ask questions.
We're only allowed to take the aisle, but because they have COVID restrictions in place now, they're saying that we can't go but it's like, "Hold on a second, you say we can't be a member of your organization and we can't stand in the aisle, which is allocated to people like us who aren't members of your organization, that's not going to fly. I think that you're going to have a little bit of conflict between us and the White House Correspondents Association this week, if they don't find a way to include us in these press conferences, because our question is important and we're going to ask it."
Melissa Harris-Perry: The gauntlet has been laid down folks by Pablo Manríquez, Capitol Hill Correspondent for Latino Rebels. Time to ask the question repeatedly, what about immigration reform Mr. President, given that you do have some unilateral authority as President of the United States? With us also was Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ford Foundation Professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-host of the podcast, Some of My Best Friends Are. Thank you both so much.
Pablo Manríquez: Thanks for having me.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Thank you, Melissa.
Speaker 7: They don't believe that anyone who is not a white Republican is a real Americans, and they believe that all of these registered valid votes were how the election was stolen, because they don't believe that people who are not white Americans should be able to register and vote. They believe that the country is being stolen by people who don't look like them.
Speaker 8: These are the same Republican lies that they've been saying for years. They used to say back in 1964, "Black people don't have problems voting, they just have to count all these jelly beans. They just have to tell me how many bubbles are in this bar of soap or read this piece of the Constitution."
Speaker 9: Truthfully, it's an embarrassment to be from the same state as Mitch McConnell, it's truly, truly awful and it's just another sad mark against Kentucky I suppose. I don't know. It makes me really sad. I can't believe he's still in office. We need to get him out.
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