During a debate on Thursday, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk made a shockingly racist comment about his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran of mixed-race heritage. Explaining why she should be in the Senate when “the drums of war” sound, Duckworth said: “My family has served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution. I’m a Daughter of the American Revolution. I’ve bled for this nation.” Kirk retorted: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” In fact, Duckworth’s father and his family have, indeed, served in uniform since the Revolution. Kirk appeared unable to accept that fact because Duckworth’s mother is a Thai immigrant of Chinese heritage. He later refused to apologized, but eventually relented and apologized in a tweet.*
None of this, it seems, is especially troubling to the Human Rights Campaign, the world’s biggest and most influential LGBTQ rights group. The HRC announced on Friday that it is maintaining its endorsement of Kirk over Duckworth, though it hopes Kirk will “rescind his comments”—i.e., his racist jab.
The Kirk question had already left the Human Rights Campaign in an awkward position. Kirk is perhaps the most pro-LGBTQ Republican in Congress, and so the group endorsed his reelection bid in March, even though Duckworth actually has a better record on LGBTQ issues. This decision seemed odd, because the Senate will never pass a pro-LGBTQ bill so long as it remains GOP-controlled, and Kirk’s reelection would help ensure continued Republican dominance. But it had a certain logic to it: So few Republicans actually support LGBTQ rights that the HRC feels compelled to lavishly reward those who do.
Now that logic should have collapsed. Whatever the HRC might admire about Kirk’s lack of homophobia, it should not be able to forgive his racism: The organization purports to oppose all forms of discrimination. But apparently, for the HRC, racism is lower on the hierarchy of bigotries than homophobia, and thus less disqualifying than anti-gay bias. To the HRC, it seems, a candidate can mock his opponent for having mixed heritage so long as he still supports marriage equality.
This position is indefensible. If a pro-LGBTQ Democrat made a similar comment about his Republican opponent—or anyone, really—I would hope that the HRC would promptly withdraw its endorsement. The decision should be even easier with Kirk, whose opponent has a superior record on LGBTQ rights. Instead, the organization has taken the cowardly path, ditching its principles for political expediency. The HRC already has a massive diversity problem and is increasingly known as a white man’s club. With its decision to stand by Kirk, the organization proved its worst critics right. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that at this point, the HRC is simply irredeemable.
*Update, October 28, 2016: This post has been updated to note Kirk’s eventual apology.