Senator Jake Knotts Slings Racial Slur at Candidate Nikki Haley: Is an Apology Going to Be Enough?

7 years ago
Gov. Sanford Convenes His Cabinet

Thank you, South Carolina and Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts. You've introduced some people in America to another racial slur, one generally reserved for Arabs, Sikhs, and sometimes African-Americans, too: "rag head." That's what you called your fellow Republican and female gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley -- who's leading in the South Carolina polls.

It's not surprising that the liberal website Think Progress told us you said that, but in addition, The State, a major South Carolina newspaper, confirmed your nastiness. According to reports, you said it Thursday on an Internet political talk show, PubPolitics.

“We already got one raghead in the White House,” Knotts said. “We don’t need another in the Governor’s Mansion.”... Haley is in a four-way contest for governor. Knotts is a longtime ally of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who is also running for governor.

Apparently, Knotts has ignored the multiple debunking notes that state "President Barack Obama is not a Muslim," just as he's ignoring Haley's statements that she is a Christian. But that's a completely different post: What's wrong with being Muslim or a Sikh, Mr. Knotts?

My teeth sink into the meat of this story, which is that Knotts likes to use racial slurs and he feels so comfortable speaking this way that he did it in a public forum. It's unsurprising that Republican leaders are frowning at him now.

Reporting that the South Carolina Republican Party immediately condemned Knotts's slur and demanded he apologize, Politico informed readers that Haley's camp said:

“Jake Knotts represents all that is wrong with South Carolina politics. He’s an embarrassment to our state and to the Republican Party. South Carolina is so much better than this, and the people of our state will make that quite clear next Tuesday.”

Politisite says:

The Term Raghead is a racial/Ethnic slur like unto calling a Black person the “N” Word.

Knotts is well known to be anti-Sanford, Anti-Haley but to use racial epitaphs [sic] are an all time low for anyone in political Office.

Further, Politisite and other sources say the video at PubPolitics was missing later. However, Politisite adds:

Wesley Donehue came out with a quick disclaimer on Twitter and said that the Views of guests on PubPolitics are not the views of Wesley Donahue or Phil Bailey who host the show.

Its article also quotes Wikipedia exposition on the word "raghead."

And this is what I really love about Knotts today, that he lacks imagination. He said it was a joke:

"If it had been recorded, the public would be able to hear firsthand that my 'raghead' comments about Obama and Haley were intended in jest," Knotts said in his statement. "Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It's like local political version of Saturday Night Live, which is actually where the joke came from."

Ha-ha! Mr. Knotts, that's one of my favorites from the "I am not a racist" list of excuses. It always plays well, right? We believed those guys who made Obama Waffle Mix completely.

Wait. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply you are racist, Mr. Knotts. I've taken a new path. I evaluate, define the type of racist rhetoric I see or hear, post Jay Smooth's video on how to tell people that what they said sounds racist, and then I go off to a closet to meditate. Ohhhhmmmmmm.

But just you wait, Mr. Knotts. Some other people may write about what you said, if they feel like chasing racism today, and those people may not go the smooth route. Some people don't waste time sugar coating their words about old-school racist rhetoric because they also have to address this new, hipster racism, such as Bill Maher's jest about wanting a "real black president."

For Real. Is "Sorry. Just Kidding" Enough?

While I'm tempted to chalk Knotts's bigotry up to one more nail in the Republican Party's coffin on race, I can't. Winking at this kind of racially charged rhetoric will be the death of this nation. And I love America, I do.

Consequently, I'm having flashbacks. Memories of our darker moments blur together because my mental database is chocked full of news stories about bigotry, stupidity, and provocative research like this 2006 Princeton study saying prejudice can be detected in the brain. While that study deals with how perceptions and dehumanization of "extreme outcasts" contribute to mockery and violence against those groups, whenever I consider this kind of information, I wonder how do we get to a point of dehumanizing "the other" and groups we deem not like us until violence erupts?

I contend we get to a place of accepting the dehumanization and mockery of others by remaining silent when racist language, ethnic slurs, and other hateful words are lobbed at those "other" people. These words eventually lead to the institutionalized oppression of "the other." When we tolerate the degradation and humiliation of "the other" via speech, we take the first steps toward tolerating worse in our nature. This is why we should denounce hate speech. This is why we should monitor what comes out of our mouths and pay attention to what comes from the mouths of people who hold public office.

Back in 2006, while writing commentary on a Louisiana sheriff who made disparaging remarks about African-Americans from New Orleans, I said:

If this (Princeton) research is valid, then I think it gives society one more reason to reject people (who demean ethnic groups) from public office and disdain them when they hold positions in the media.

My position remains the same. The Republican Party says it wants Knotts to apologize, but is apology enough when we know there's a pattern?

Oh, there's a pattern all right. I don't have to hold a box of soundbites from Knotts making racial slurs to know that this is not the first time he's said something like this. If he was bold enough to say this in public, then believe me, it's how he feels. It's what he says at home. It reflects his bigotry toward people of color in general.

"From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks" is not just a New Testament Bible verse. It's common sense about human nature. The only time our words don't reveal our actual thoughts is when we consciously seek to deceive others through lying.

Someone out there is saying, "Well, at least Knotts is honest." I agree, but we can't afford to give him points for being his ignorant self. He holds public office in a nation that at its best seeks racial harmony and equity for all. Tolerating the attitude behind his honesty compromises our ideals, encourages the worst of human ignobility, and threatens our harmony. Consistently ignoring this kind of language from elected officials and only demanding an apology is self-destructive.

While I know people cringe when writers tie current events to Nazi Germany, I ask that you bear with me here. The example I'm about to use is not from the Jewish Holocaust itself, but from a period more than a century before that created the climate in which that atrocity was possible.

By studying history we can see how to avoid a scary turn:

German nationalism, as it arose in the time of Napoleon, set the stage for Hitler. Ordinary Germans became fascinated with the idea of political unity and national greatness, largely because they had neither.

A pastor named Fredrick Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) put together a youth movement in which young men carried out physical exercise for the Fatherland. He led them long hikes in the countryside and staged rallies in which they screamed denunciations of German-speaking, pro-French aristocrats. In fact, he taught them to be suspicious of foreigners, Jews, and others who would supposedly corrupt the purity of the German Volk.

Ludwig was not an elected official, but he was a man in a position of leadership. It was just hateful talk, but hateful talk has the power to shape the thought of a nation.

So, I wonder again, why do we tolerate people in public office whose speech carries the virus of bigotry? Why do we pay them with tax dollars to infect us?

Is Knotts exceptionally capable at his job? What benefit does he bring to the table except to remind us that people as bigoted as he still exist and we're dumb enough to pay them with tax dollars and let them influence public policy?

Influence. That's at the root of why we should disdain and object to people like Knotts, not just to his rhetoric, but to his holding office.

I hear the obvious rebuttal: Dare we penalize a person for what he says? What about freedom of speech?

I agree that we must protect free speech. Knotts has the right to say whatever he wishes, but I also declare that when a fool opens his mouth and removes all doubt that he is a fool, it's time to ask ourselves do we want fools holding positions of power?

Freedom of speech protects Americans from government oppression. It does not protect government officials from the people and the people's power to remove politicians from office who hinder the common good. Again I ask, what good comes from keeping people like Knotts in office? That's the question the Republican Party should be asking itself.

Surely there's a Republican in South Carolina who could do Knotts's job more effectively than Knotts and not perpetuate the image of the Republican Party as the Grand Old Party where bigots rise to the top. They've got Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck for that.


Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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