Tommy Tuberville's Wink-And-Nod Racism Threatens Our Democracy

Tommy Tuberville

Sen. Tommy Tuberville

Tommy Tuberville

I have a cousin on the white side of my Jefferson descendant family who did the world a great favor back in 1999 when I first took my cousins from the Sally Hemings side to the Jefferson family reunion at Monticello. The Monticello Association, the all-white group of Thomas Jefferson descendants that owns the graveyard at Monticello, had just finished its annual meeting after the family reunion.

The meeting was, not to put too fine a point on it, raucous, with white descendants shouting down black descendants when they tried to speak at the meeting. I had made a motion that the Monticello Association accept our Hemings cousins into the group by acclamation. A few white descendants countered with a move to table the motion until our next meeting, a year hence. That motion carried by the entire association voting yes with the exception of four Truscott members – me, my brother Frank, and sisters Ginny and Susan – voting no.

The press was waiting outside the door of the ballroom at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville when the meeting was over. I was answering questions from about 40 members of the press, including maybe a dozen or more television reporters who were there with their cameras and microphones, when one of my white cousins approached the group and began speaking loudly over me, trying to interrupt the interview.

I moved aside and said that it seemed she had some things to say, so she stepped up to the bank of microphones. The first question was from a reporter for the New York Times. He asked what was the objection by Monticello Association members to accepting the Hemings family into the association.

“Ya’ll think we’re racists, but we’re not. We’re not racists, we’re just snobs,” she said, smiling.

Nobody had a follow-up question, and you could see reporters scribbling down her answer and folding their notebooks and heading for their rooms to file their stories. One of the reporters, from the Washington Post, gave me a thumbs-up sign as he left, because my white cousin had done more to expose the racism of our white cousins than anything that had been said over the entire weekend of the reunion.

Redefining racism is one of the oldest tricks in the racist handbook. Back in the Civil Rights days of the 1960’s, when racists were fighting school integration across the south with their policy of “massive resistance,” countless southern whites were interviewed on TV and radio saying this, or words very close to it: “Well, I’m not a racist. I just don’t want my children going to school with them,” meaning Black children.

“We’re not racists, we’re just snobs” could be the national motto of what you might call the Tommy Tuberville branch of American racists. In an interview yesterday with CNN’s Kaitlin Collins, the Republican senator from Alabama “tripled down” on his defense of white nationalists, as an ABC News headline put it. “My opinion of a white nationalist, if someone wants to call them a white nationalist, to me is an American. It's an American,” Tuberville told Collins, echoing his previous comments on the subject. “Now if that white nationalist is a racist, I'm totally against anything that they want to do because I am 110 percent against racism."

Asked yesterday by ABC’s senior Congressional correspondent Rachel Scott to explain why he believes white nationalists should continue to serve in the military, Tuberville answered, “Listen, I'm totally against racism. And if Democrats want to say that white nationalists are racist, I'm totally against that, too." When Scott countered with, “But that’s not a Democratic definition,” Tuberville said, “Well that’s your definition. My definition is racism is bad.”

The definition of the term, “white nationalism” by the Cambridge Dictionary is: “The belief that white people have their own racial and national identity and should have the most power, authority and rights in a country, usually based on the idea that they are better in some way than people from other groups.”

Tuberville’s definition of white nationalists as not being racists goes back to an interview he did in May of this year on a local Alabama radio station. He was defending his blockage of promoting general officers in the military until the Pentagon drops its policy on supporting women who must travel out of anti-abortion states to receive medical care, for example, when they are diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, a condition in which a fetus develops outside of the womb -- which if not corrected is often fatal. Doctors in some southern states are refusing to perform abortions on ectopic fetuses, believing that under strict anti-abortion laws they will be prosecuted.

Tuberville was told that the Pentagon has said that blocking military promotions is affecting military readiness. Tuberville countered with an allegation that preventing white nationalists from serving could also affect military readiness: “Democrats are saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists," Tuberville said. When asked by the interviewer, “Do you believe they should allow white nationalists in the military?" Tuberville gave his now infamous answer, “Well, they call them that. I call them Americans,” clearly referring to the Pentagon’s policy that white nationalists should not be permitted in the U.S. military.

Tuberville’s logic that white nationalists should be allowed to serve in the nation’s military because “they aren’t racist, they’re Americans,” is similar to the logic of racist segregationists, who said they don’t object to Black people, per se, they just don’t want their children going to school with them.

Tuberville has been outspoken in his criticism of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who happens to be Black, for his policy of ridding the military of white nationalists as part of its larger policy of keeping members of extremist groups out of the military.

Tuberville is breathing life into a pernicious racist belief that I fear will find proponents on today’s Supreme Court. The idea that you are entitled to your own beliefs, be they religious or political, was just upheld by the Supreme Court in its decision on Creative LLC v. Elenis, which held that a website designer in Colorado had a right to refuse the business of a gay couple for a wedding website because of her belief that gay marriage is wrong. The same logic was applied to integration by racists in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Along with a belief that the Bible bars the mixing of the races, segregationists said their objection to integration was a belief that they should be free to associate with whomever they want, and if they didn’t want their children associating with Black children, no law should stand in their way of exercising their rights under that belief.

I fear that at right this very minute the group that filed the lawsuit for the web designer in Colorado, the Alliance Defending Freedom, is looking for a plaintiff with whom they can file a lawsuit challenging the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The lawsuit will say that if people have a religious belief that the races shouldn’t mix, no law should stand between them and exercising their beliefs. Of course, racists are free to take their children out of public schools and send them to the all-white “academies” which proliferated in the South after Brown, but that isn’t the way the suit will be framed. It will say that public monies should not be restricted to public schools that are integrated but should also be spent to support all-white schools, whether religious or otherwise.

Alliance Defending Freedom will find an eager ally in Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville, and may find a majority on the Supreme Court, because if you’re a racist and you have a right to serve in our tax-payer supported military, shouldn’t you also have a right to send your children to taxpayer-supported schools that practice your racism?

It's not a slippery slope, it’s a chasm in the melting glacier of our system of laws. The Tommy Tubervilles of this world who treat racism with a wink and a nod are a threat to our democracy.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.

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