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Perspective: We are Americans — with or without hyphens

The ultimate response to Mitch McConnell’s remark should be at the ballot box

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Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Some people lack knowledge and experience about cultural or social norms and they speak out of turn. Some people are naïve or innocently make remarks that may rub people the wrong way. And then there are provocateurs, people who intentionally make comments to get a rise out of people, create a red herring or ignite controversy.

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said on a live microphone at a press conference, “African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” many people wondered into which category his words fall.

McConnell appears to be a brilliant strategist. He must be given credit for sometimes out-maneuvering Democrats and being a staunch partisan leader. It is for this reason, many have questioned if his comment was a mere slip of the tongue, as he has said, or a Freudian slip, which revealed his true feelings? Or were these the words of a keen strategist, planting seeds of doubt and dividing us deeper; a deliberate remark by a man who once said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”?

The words McConnell said seemed to imply that African Americans are not Americans. He later said he meant to say that African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as “all” Americans and that the subsequent response and discussion about his record was “deeply offensive.” But rather than apologizing to African Americans, he said our response was an “outrageous mischaracterization” and that the reaction was hurtful.

If African Americans had not overcome so many hurdles, defeated so many opponents and made so many advances, his comments would have been a slap in the face. However, African Americans have come too far, and we have had too many glimpses into the playbook of oppression.

If McConnell’s words were indeed a gaffe, there are still many others who would attempt, metaphorically or otherwise, to reduce African Americans to the time when our heritage was not acknowledged. But we are aware that it’s not what we are called that matters. It is not how we are described that has meaning. It is how we see ourselves and how we respond that has meaning.

Whether the remark was intentional provocation or not, simple political irresponsibility can be a ruthless opponent to unity and democracy. 

The days of making peace with mediocrity, feasting on crumbs and starving for white affirmation to legitimize Americans must forever be behind us. Yet we are compelled to respond to an offensive comment, made without apology by an elected official, that evokes illegitimacy, second-class citizenry and ineligibility to vote.

While many have responded to McConnell on social media and in the press, the ultimate American response is at the ballot box.

And we are Americans.  

The black hands that picked cotton, harvested tobacco, dammed rivers and built railroads, all without the right to vote, were Americans. The brown hands that were here before us, and cultivated this land only to have it taken from them, were Americans. The identity of these African and Native Americans who sacrificed and suffered to build America’s foundation were far beyond a hyphen.  

Our ethnicity “African American” conveys who and where we are today. It also conveys that we know from where we have come — Africa. A continent, with ancestors of leaders, innovators, engineers, architects, pioneers, visionaries and dreamers, who for decades contributed involuntarily, enslaved and without the right to vote, to a country that is flawed, yes, but remains a mosaic of beauty — our country, America. 

The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.