Commentary

Despite denouncing racist Hampton official, GOP’s actions have long alienated Black voters

April 14, 2022 12:02 am

Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools, leads a rally against critical race theory in Loudoun County in June 2021. (Nathaniel Cline/ Loudoun Times-Mirror)

It’s no revelation that many African Americans, in Virginia and nationwide, view the Republican Party as hostile to their aspirations and well-being. The news that a GOP electoral official in Hampton Roads hurled a racial slur at two Black military veterans, and blithely suggested a return to “a good public lynching,” reinforce the view of such enmity – if not outright violence.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans quickly demanded David Dietrich, the electoral board chair in Hampton since January, resign following the recent publicity about his February 2021 Facebook post. The Hampton Circuit Court formally noted his resignation Monday. 

Dietrich had verbally attacked Lloyd Austin, who served four-plus decades in the Army and is the nation’s first Black secretary of defense, and Russel Honore, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the review of the U.S. Capitol’s security after the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Questioning their loyalty is both absurd and offensive.

The Republican Party of Hampton, on its Facebook page, expressed its outrage at Dietrich’s missive and copied the text of the disturbing 2021 post. Dietrich had said Honore was “a Black nationalist” and called the two men “enemies of the people.” 

The electoral official then went on to describe both military veterans this way: “They are nothing more than dirty, stinking n——s.”

That’s how Dietrich distilled the essence of two men who, combined, spent three-quarters of a century serving in the military and defending this country. Among his military tours, Austin fought in Iraq. 

“As governor, I serve all Virginians,” Youngkin tweeted April 9, before Dietrich had quit. “I won’t accept racism in our Commonwealth or our party. The abhorrent words of a Hampton Roads official are beyond unacceptable and have no place in Virginia. It’s time to resign.”

Some background on electoral boards: The political parties in a locality recommend nominees. The chief judge in the judicial circuit then selects the members. Usually, two members of the three-person electoral board are in the same party as the governor. 

Their duties include holding meetings, approving and recommending locations of polling places, and determining official results. 

It’s not clear how the Hampton GOP learned of the 2021 Facebook comments. Hampton GOP Chairman Phil Siff declined an interview but referred me to a news release. In the statement on the Facebook page, the party said it “unequivocally condemns all forms of racism and bigotry, and specifically condemns the language employed by Mr. Dietrich.”

Siff had told another news outlet: “It’s not acceptable behavior for someone who’s going to be in that type of position.”

Indeed.

Dietrich would have helped oversee elections in a city that’s 50 percent Black, yet he held these noxious views. Fortunately, no elections were held during his short stint on the board. 

This is no idle point, because some Republican officials around the country long questioned Joe Biden’s win after the 2020 presidential contest. Dietrich’s rantings were like-minded. 

Youngkin’s criticism was warranted and welcome. Nor am I suggesting every Republican thinks as Dietrich does.

Yet, the governor and other elected Republicans have too often employed racial tropes and outright lies, after calculating such strategies would drive their base to the polls. 

Racial reconciliation and equity be damned. 

Youngkin ran his gubernatorial contest claiming “critical race theory” was harming public education. Conservatives had ginned up the catch-all phrase to incite their voters. The issue helped the political novice defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe last year.

A Youngkin spokeswoman didn’t respond when I asked what the governor would tell Black Virginians who see the Hampton incident as more evidence the GOP is hostile to them.

The de facto head of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, used racial animus by Whites toward others even before his 2016 presidential campaign. He was, for example, the leading proponent of the scurrilous “birther” movement, saying Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States – and thus ineligible to be president. 

Following his failed bid for re-election in 2020, Trump and his minions lied repeatedly about voter fraud. Trump specifically cited heavily Black cities including Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta as places he said the election was stolen from him

It was a blatantly racist, stupefying attack. African-American voters have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic nominee for president for decades. 

From 1968 to 2016, in fact, no Republican presidential candidate received more than 13 percent of the African-American vote; from 2000 to 2016, the Democrat averaged a whopping 91 percent of the Black vote. Biden won about 90 percent of the Black vote in 2020.

None of Trump’s claims on Black votes made sense – unless you don’t want those ballots to count.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African-American woman selected to the U.S. Supreme Court, faced a slew of disturbing questions from Republican lawmakers. The inquiries had nothing to do with her specific background or the job as justice. The senators also showed disrespect by repeatedly cutting off the nominee’s answers during this year’s confirmation hearings.

Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of three Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson, noted: “I think there was a level of personal attack that was unwarranted.” 

Back to the Hampton electoral board. Among Dietrich’s more-alarming comments was his shift to lynchings. 

Given the history of vigilante terror in this country, the statement was deplorable. Tuskegee University notes 4,743 people were lynched from 1882-1968; 73 percent of the victims were Black. 

A more modern-day allusion? Someone built and erected a hangman’s gallows during the attempted reversal of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. 

The GOP, in Virginia and elsewhere, can continue to alienate large swaths of the public with divisive, biased tactics and rhetoric. The strategy has been partly successful for decades, though less so in an increasingly racially diverse country. 

Will the party shift to inclusion over expediency? Given the recent past, there’s no reason for optimism.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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