A Racist Slate?

On March 23, the House of Representatives debated a proposed resolution condemning the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist group that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has come under fire for addressing. Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma pre-empted consideration of the bill by introducing an alternative resolution denouncing all forms of racism and bigotry without mentioning the CCC specifically. After Reps. Charles Canaday of Florida and John Coyners of Michigan criticized the Watts substitute (which failed to get the two-thirds vote required for passage), Watts answered them from the floor:

… I would just say to my friend, the gentleman from Florida, that it is an amazing thing to me that over the last 4 years when I have been attacked, when I have had racist comments made about me, my friend from Florida never came to the floor and spoke up. The gentleman from Michigan, when I have had racist attacks made against me by people in the white community back in Oklahoma, the State Democrat Party back in Oklahoma, Slate magazine, which is a national magazine, no one ran to the floor to condemn that.

Bruce Gottlieb of our Redmond office called Rep. Watts’ office to ask what he thought Slate had done that constituted a racist attack. Watts’s press secretary Pam Pryor pointed to a “Strange Bedfellow” column that I wrote in May, 1998, titled “The Football Caucus.” Gottlieb then forwarded the article by e-mail and asked what in it Watts found racist.

From: Pam Pryor

Sent: Thursday, March 25, 1999 3:16 PM

To: Bruce Gottlieb

Bruce, the part in the story that says, “But despite his go-along, get-along … (through) if he weren’t black,” is the part we find offensive in particular. Doubtful you would have said that about a Black Democrat.

And if you did, many voices would have risen against you …

I then replied:

From: Jacob Weisberg

Sent: Friday, March 26, 1999 3:45 PM

To: Pam Pryor

Dear Ms. Pryor,

I can understand how Rep. Watts might be annoyed by my article, and how any number of people might disagree with it for a variety of reasons. But on what basis did he go onto the floor of the House and call Slate, and by implication me, “racist”?

You cite this passage: “But despite his go-along, get-along affability, Watts is unlikely to accomplish much in the House. The problem is that Watts would never be given a leading role in his party if he weren’t black.”

I can only guess at what Rep. Watts might have found offensive here. The phrase “go-along to get-along” has no racial implication that I’m aware of. It’s a standard description of party loyalty, applied most often in my experience to white Democrats.

Next we come to the phrase, “unlikely to to accomplish much in the House.” This is my prediction based on my assessment of Rep. Watts’ record thus far and my opinion of his abilities. I might be wrong in this forecast. But either way, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that he’s black. Indeed, I say nearly the same thing about Rep. Largent elsewhere in the same article.

The final sentence in the passage you cite contends that Rep. Watts has been elevated within the Republican Party in part because of his race. In other words, I think that affirmative action has played a role in Rep. Watts’ rapid ascent within GOP. Do you actually dispute this? Would you seriously maintain that Rep. Watts would have been chosen to give the Republican response to President Clinton immediately after the 1994 election and to speak at the San Diego Convention in 1996–to name only a few of his honors and distinctions–if he happened to be white? But again, whether or not I’m correct in my analysis, there’s nothing racist about arguing that a member of a minority group–whether a Democrat or a Republican–has benefited from a desire for diversity.

Supportive of the party line … not especially capable … beneficiary of affirmative action. I most certainly would say any of these things about a black Democrat to whom they applied. In fact, I did say them in a column about Alexis Herman a few months earlier. No one accused me of bigotry. And if someone had, I would have been just as offended as I am now.

Unless I’m missing something here, I really think Rep. Watts owes Slate, and me, an apology.

Yours sincerely,

Jacob Weisberg

To date, we have received no answer from Rep. Watts or his office. Here’s a link to my original article. Readers can make up their own minds about whether it constitutes a racist attack.