Congressional Republicans may eschew robes and burning crosses, but the party’s overt racism is increasingly on display beneath the Capitol dome. The appalling treatment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Supreme Court nomination hearings was last week’s example. This week belongs to a noted jurist who was set to have a building named after him until the long claws of bigotry dug in and ripped the posthumous honor away.
When Justice Joseph W. Hatchett sat for the Florida bar exam in 1959, he was not allowed to stay in the hotel where the test was being administered because Jim Crow laws forbade it. A Black man born in Clearwater in 1932, Hatchett graduated from Howard University School of Law and undertook a legal career that included serving as assistant state attorney general, a judge for the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, a judge for the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and a judge on the Florida Supreme Court. He was the first Black person to serve as a Florida Supreme Court judge.
Hatchett retired from the court in 1999 and went into private practice. He passed away last year at age 88, a widely praised and highly admired jurist. “Joe Hatchett is a person who lives and has lived by the ethical precepts which have historically guided the conduct of truly great judges and lawyers of our past and present,” said former American Bar Association (ABA) President Chesterfield Smith when Hatchett was awarded the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “Joe Hatchett to me exemplifies what is best in an American judge, one who is sometimes lonely, but one who never shirks standing alone.”
Last month, Florida’s two Republican senators — joined by all 27 member of Florida’s House contingent — sponsored a bill to name a Tallahassee courthouse after Hatchett. The bill was expected to sail with enormous bipartisan support; naming things is among the easiest and most uncontroversial tasks performed by Congress, often happening on a fast-track basis with no debate or recorded vote. The Hatchett bill was set to join the thousands that had preceded it until GOP Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia stepped into its path.
“Since being sworn in last year, Mr. Clyde has drawn attention for comparing the deadly Capitol attack to a ‘normal tourist visit’ and voting against a resolution to give the Congressional Gold Medal to police officers who responded that day,” reports The New York Times. “He also opposed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which made lynching a federal hate crime and explicitly outlawed an act that was symbolic of the country’s history of racial violence. Mr. Clyde also voted against recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.”
Clyde’s “problem” with naming a building after Hatchett? A 1999 decision in which then-Judge Hatchett upheld long-established Constitutional protections against prayer in public schools. Like a pollinating bumblebee, Clyde buzzed from colleague’s ear to colleague’s ear brandishing an Associated Press article on that ruling. Republican “yes” votes began flipping to “no,” and before long it was a stampede.
Among the stampeders were many who had initially cosponsored the bill to begin with. Others merely acted when they saw the herd wheel and charge. “Asked what made him vote against a measure that he had co-sponsored,” reports the Times, “Representative Vern Buchanan, Republican of Florida, was brief and blunt: ‘I don’t know,’ he said.” (Later, a spokesman for the congressman said he’d made his decision “because of the judge’s position against prayer at graduation ceremonies.”)
The Hatchett bill required a two-thirds majority to pass in the House. It was defeated with 187 “no” votes, a tally that included 89 percent of House Republicans.
It would be easy to chalk this debacle up to the “tensions” of the moment, to the ongoing fight over the teaching of so-called “critical race theory,” itself a nonsense issue because no such theory is taught in any public school anywhere.
Yet in the aftermath of the disgracefully racist Brown Jackson hearings, one would think Republicans would have sense enough to let the rhetoric cool down, let the bruises that were raised fade, lest the true nature of these endeavors become unavoidably exposed. Instead, what we have here is a doubling down, a dare-you-to-stop-me search for the next extreme act, and the next, and the next. Their racism is overtly on display, and they’re not backing down.
The weaponizing of religion by the GOP’s evangelical base plays no small part in this; everything from Roe v. Wade to LGBTQ justice is passed through the evangelical prism to emerge as a threat against Christianity, which then justifies the most heinous forms of response.
Worse, therefore — and certainly instructive on how mobs can be incited to do horrific things — was the lemming-like quality to this abrupt and cruel reversal. The fact that so many of Clyde’s fellow Republicans feared what would happen if they voted “yes,” feared what would happen if their racist and/or evangelical voter base got wind of that vote, speaks volumes on the state of play within that party.
A few of them didn’t even need fear as a motivator: They saw a clot of Republicans in a stampede and leaped over the cliff to join them, no questions asked.
No questions asked. Our history is rife with moments of gruesome violence and cruelty committed by individuals who fell into the gravity well of mob action. More often than not, members of those mobs would look at the blood on their hands in the aftermath and have no adequate answer to one question: “Why?” In this, Representative Buchanan’s initial response to why he voted against an uncontroversial bill is instructive.
Others, like Representative Clyde, knew exactly what they were doing when they successfully wrecked the honoring of a Black man based on the most gossamer of justifications. They need no justification; when they do what they do, those who support them and their racism provide justification enough. They most devoutly believe their bleak star — bereft of light and promising only darkness — is on the rise. It has been for a long while now, but in the overtly racist wake of Donald Trump, they are no longer hiding in hushed corners.