March 13, 2017; NPR
By now, Representative Steve King’s tweet has made the Twitter rounds and popped up in most major news sources. On Sunday, the Republican congressman from Iowa tweeted, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
King was referring to Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliamentary candidate with far-right nationalist and white supremacist views. He has also expressed support for Norbert Hofer, Marine Le Pen, and other far-right European nationalists.
King’s tweet produced the somewhat predictable responses on Twitter. Former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke praised him; John Lewis, a civil rights veteran and Georgia congressman, called the comments “deeply disturbing.” Congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle and of various ethnic backgrounds denounced the statement, but Sean Spicer, when asked for President Trump’s reaction, said he would “look into it and provide a response.”
That moment, when the President of the United States did not immediately condemn an unfounded and racially charged statement by a congressional representative, is one of the most alarming parts of this episode. When the presidential press secretary was unable to assure Americans of different ethnic backgrounds that their president supported them and recognized their contributions to their country, he indicated how the rise of Trump and the far right have validated efforts to rewrite the American narrative to exclude different histories and identities.
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King has previously made comments that alluded to the belief that “civilization” is the product of white society, restricting nonwhites to the roles of beneficiaries or secondary contributors at best. This belief is directly at odds with history and with present reality.
It is especially problematic given the past few years’ surge in efforts by major institutions to recognize and reconcile with histories that are complicated by a reliance on slavery and other forms of racial oppression. Harvard launched a major online resource in 2011, Yale renamed a college only a month ago, and Georgetown offers admissions preference to the descendants of slaves sold to pay the school’s debts. The philanthropic landscape is evolving to take historical and present-day ethics into account. These efforts are a direct acknowledgement that the arc of American history is neither clean nor straight, even if it bends gradually toward justice. Race is now recognized as a social construct, and if minorities are largely absent from American history books, it is not from a lack of effort or worthiness on their part.
This comment from King sounds extreme, but it isn’t his first inflammatory bout with the press. Furthermore, his comments are unsurprising given his voting record. He has supported legislation amending the Constitution to define traditional marriage, requiring government services in English only, ending birthright citizenship, mandating reporting of illegal immigrants who receive hospital treatment, and other strongly anti-immigrant, anti-minority legislation.
King has represented Iowa in Congress for 15 years, and his views have not changed. What has changed is the political administration, whose rhetoric, orders, and alliances are nothing short of alarming for those who place a high value on human and civil rights. An extraordinary level of serious vigilance is required from civil society.—Erin Rubin