Something about Black people speaking their minds scares the heck out of conservatives who like to present themselves as staunch defenders of liberty.
These rightwing tough guys are so freaked out by free speech that they melt down even when the people who are calling them out don’t have the power to do anything but … speak.
The Feb. 18 debacle in the Indiana House of Representatives is but one example.
That episode of tragedy and farce began when Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, spoke about a bill that would allow students from racially diverse South Bend Community Schools to transfer to a nearby system that is almost exclusively white. He said the bill was discriminatory.
Porter is a member of the Black caucus. Members of the caucus dressed for the day in traditional African garb to celebrate Black History Month.
Porter’s comments so incensed some conservative members of the Republican caucus that they began booing and trying to shout the Democrat down.
“I have a right to speak,” Porter said before surrendering the floor.
Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, followed him.
Smith is a former teacher and school principal as well as a member of the Black caucus. Smith picked up on Porter’s theme and argued the bill was discriminatory.
The conservative lawmakers booed him, too. Several of them gathered in the back of the room and ostentatiously ignored him.
One of them—Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour—even left the chamber in protest.
Lucas, Hoosiers will remember, was the lawmaker disciplined by House leadership last year for posting racist memes on his Facebook page. He denied being racist and said he doesn’t “see color.”
Remember that phrase.
Lucas’s protestations were undercut by the fact that finding the memes he used isn’t effortless. He had to work at uncovering images that were that offensive and look for them in some strange places.
Maybe he was motivated.
Things escalated after Smith spoke.
Several legislators apparently got into shouting matches. A few reports said they pushed each other and shoved each other. Some had to be separated by colleagues to keep them from getting into serious fights.
All to keep a few Black lawmakers from saying what was on their minds.
And here’s the thing.
The Black caucus in the Indiana House of Representatives doesn’t have enough votes to call for a bathroom break and make it happen. Because Republicans in that chamber have a supermajority, conservative members have the power to push any measure through that they want.
Including the South Bend school bill.
But in what passes for thought today in conservative circles, being called a racist is a much greater offense than being a racist. The important thing to remember about the world in which rightwing snowflakes such as Lucas live is that they always, always, always are the victims, no matter how offensive or outrageous their own actions might be.
For them, personal responsibility means finding someone else to take the blame for their screw-ups.
One of the lawmakers involved in a dust-up, Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, denied there were any racial tensions involved in the legislative meltdown—at least not on his part.
“I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” he said.
Lucas swears he doesn’t “see color.” Eberhart vows he doesn’t have “a racist bone” in his body.
If we could just find another lawmaker to assert that some of his or her “best friends are Black,” we would have a winner in the game of racial self-justification bingo.
The bill, by the way, passed, 53-42.
But getting the measure through wasn’t enough for the conservative tough talkers who proclaim they’re all about “freedom.”
What they’re really interested in is making sure that everyone has the freedom to think and speak exactly as they do.
They want this so much they try to strip Black legislators of the power to speak when the power to speak is the only power those Black lawmakers have.
Something those Black leaders said must have scared the angry conservative legislators right down to their socks.
There’s only one thing with the power to do that.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.