Tucker Carlson goes after Biden’s civil rights picks with “colorblind” fantasies

The Fox news personality is not, in fact, an expert on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Image of Tucker Carlson, Kristin Clarke, Catherine Lhamon, and Susan rice

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has taken a particular interest in railing against the so-called “radical” personnel picks of the new administration of President Joe Biden. Although he also made time to lob anti-trans slander at Biden’s historic choice for assistant health secretary, most of Carlson’s recent ire has focused on the people Biden has tasked with reinvigorating the civil rights mandate of the federal government.

According to Carlson, these picks — accomplished public servants and policy experts all — have spent their careers woefully misunderstanding civil rights law. But Carlson has no idea what he’s talking about. Or he’s just lying on behalf of the “white supremacist cell” of Fox News. 

For anyone unfortunate enough to have watched Carlson’s yearslong descent into bigotry and his coddling of white nationalism, this new smear campaign is as predictable as the lies with which he is choosing to attack these Biden selections: Kristen Clarke, a longtime civil rights leader who was most recently president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and has been chosen to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Catherine Lhamon, the former chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who was tapped to be the Domestic Policy Council’s deputy director for racial justice and equity; and former national security adviser and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who will coordinate the Biden administration’s efforts to achieve racial equity throughout the federal government as domestic policy adviser.

But to Fox’s Carlson, they are a “lunatic” and a “radical,” they should be “under investigation by the Civil Rights Division, not running it,” and, in reference to their efforts on behalf of racial equity, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “would be shocked and disgusted.”

It is these last two attacks in particular where Carlson shows his hand, presenting his preferred and false narrative in which not only is American law and history “colorblind” (it’s not) but current constitutional law does not uphold the very race-conscious policies he bizarrely labels as outlandish (it does). 

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Citation From the January 26, 2021, edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): The United States government should never, under any circumstances, favor one race of people over any other race of people. Period. That is immoral. We are all citizens, we are all human beings, we are all created by God, we are all equal. Every one of us has a right to equal treatment by our government. That right is guaranteed by our Constitution. It's the heart of countless laws passed with well-deserved fanfare by our Congress over many decades. That right is inscribed on a monument on our National Mall to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would be shocked and disgusted if he watched Susan Rice on television today.

It’s quite jarring to see a summary of the history of racial (in)equality in this country skip over slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction amendments, and Reconstruction itself (overtly race-conscious efforts all, for good and for bad), but it’s downright ahistorical to pretend racial equity is antithetical to the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., as Carlson does. Similar to the “disparate impact” approaches of civil rights enforcement that he disparaged in his smear of Lhamon (congressionally approved approaches to ameliorate racially discriminatory effects, which have been upheld by numerous circuit courts, as well as by the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), racial equity is at the core of the very “countless laws passed with well-deserved fanfare by our Congress over many decades” he praised.

To ease his confusion about “racial equity,” and how it relates to equality, Carlson could look at how former President Lyndon Johnson (no “radical” on race) explained his mission to pass seminal modern civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which marked when multiracial democracy in the United States began:

You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

For the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities--physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness.

To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough. Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in--by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

This is literally an explanation of racial equity and its relation to true equality, and one that is considered to be one of the early arguments for affirmative action (also, still very much constitutional).

But ultimately, it is Carlson’s appropriation of Martin Luther King Jr. in his smear of Clarke, Lhamon, and Rice that is most painful to watch, even if honesty cannot be expected from his show at this point. As multiple historians and journalists have pointed out, King repeatedly supported forms of race-conscious remedies to achieve racial equity. His clearest explanation may have been given in a 1965 interview with Alex Haley:

The closest analogy is the GI Bill of Rights. Negro rehabilitation in America would require approximately the same breadth of program—which would not place an undue burden on our economy. Just as was the case with the returning soldier, such a bill for the disadvantaged and impoverished could enable them to buy homes without cash, at lower and easier repayment terms. They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses. They could receive, as did ex-GIs, special points to place them ahead in competition for civil service jobs. Under certain circumstances of physical disability, medical care and long-term financial grants could be made available. And together with these rights, a favorable social climate could be created to encourage the preferential employment of the disadvantaged, as was the case for so many years with veterans. During those years, it might be noted, there was no appreciable resentment of the preferential treatment being given to the special group. America was only compensating her veterans for their time lost from school or from business.

Perhaps Carlson should stick to name-calling. Racist smear campaigns against Biden’s civil rights nominees and appointments can be conducted even without lying about history and precedent.