GOP congressman: Our party needs a 'great white hope'

Rep. Lynn Jenkins is apologizing “if her words have offended anyone,” a spokesman said. The first-term Republican says she didn’t realize the phrase “great white hope” had any racial connotations…

By JOHN HANNA
Associated Press Writer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A freshman Republican congresswoman apologized Thursday for telling a gathering in her district that the GOP was still searching for a “great white hope” to stop President Barack Obama’s political agenda.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins used the phrase during an Aug. 19 forum as she discussed the Republican Party’s future and tried to reassure members that the GOP has promising young leaders. Someone in the crowd recorded video of the event in Hiawatha, about 65 miles northeast of Topeka, and gave it to the Kansas Democratic Party.
“She apologizes if her words have offended anyone,” Jenkins spokeswoman Mary Geiger told The Associated Press. “That was not the intent in any way, shape or form.”
At an event at University of Kansas in Lawrence, Jenkins denied she was speaking in racial terms and said she meant only that the GOP needs “a bright light.”
“I was unaware of any negative connotation, and if I offended anybody, obviously, I apologize,” Jenkins told the Lawrence Journal-World.
At the Hiawatha event, Jenkins was discussing the GOP’s future, with Democrats in control of Congress and Obama elected the nation’s first black president, in response to an audience question. Jenkins is white, as are three House colleagues she mentioned as future party leaders: Eric Cantor of Virginia; Kevin McCarthy of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
“Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope,” Jenkins said last week. “I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington.”
The Democratic National Committee in Washington declined to comment Thursday.
“I saw that report,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said at a briefing on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where Obama is vacationing. “I also saw that her spokesperson backpeddaled and said that was a poor choice of words. We obviously give congressman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt.”
The National Republican Campaign Committee in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment.
Jenkins was not available for comment Thursday morning, but she was to hold an afternoon town hall meeting in Ottawa, about 55 miles southwest of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
The phrase “great white hope” often is associated with pre-civil rights-era racism and is widely believed to have entered usage in the U.S. when boxer Jack Johnson, who was black, captured the heavyweight title in the early 20th century. Many whites reacted to Johnson’s achievement by trying to find white fighters — or a “great white hope” — who could beat him. The boxer’s story inspired a play, then a movie, with that title, both starring James Earl Jones.
Geiger said she doubts Jenkins was aware of the phrase’s connection to the play about Johnson. Geiger said she’s never heard Jenkins use it before.
She said Jenkins simply was discussing how the GOP has faced challenges in recent years but has talented young leaders, adding, “That’s what she was saying, that was it, nothing more, nothing less.”
Tyler Longpine, a spokesman for the Kansas Democratic Party, called Jenkins’ comment “a poor choice of words” but said he doesn’t think it was anything more than that.
He said a Democratic Party supporter shot the video at Jenkins’ forum in Hiawatha and shared it with the state party.
“The thing that kind of strikes me was the partisan tone of it all,” Longpine said. “If she’d stick to talking about policy rather than politics, she could have kept her foot out of her mouth.”
Jenkins, 46, won the 2nd Congressional District seat for eastern Kansas last year by ousting Democratic incumbent Nancy Boyda. She previously served two terms as state treasurer and four years in the Kansas Legislature.
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Associated Press writer Glen Johnson in Oak Bluffs, Mass., contributed to this report.
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Updated: August 27, 2009 — 1:20 pm

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  1. The saddest part of this whole thing is that she probably didn’t know the origin of the phrase, which originally referred to the search for a white boxer to defeat Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, early in the last century. Cultural illiteracy is on the rise.

  2. Stupid, stupid, stupid–particularly from someone who talks for a living! Add her to the burgeoning GOP hall of shame.

  3. Wow, people are touchy. Does everyone assume that people are racist until proven otherwise? When are we ever going to get beyond race when everyone is paranoid about offending someone. Most people are NOT racist! Assume the best of people until proven otherwise. Using such a common phrase, though not the best choice of words, is not proof of racism. The vast majority of Americans could care less Obama is black, white or green, it’s his politics some disagree with. When a liberal democrat uses this phrase, and I’ve heard them use it, no one says a word. It’s just a phrase, not a good one, of course, but it’s just that. One cannot be expected to know the origin of every phrase in common usage today. Lay off of poor Rep. Jenkins. Geeezzz!

  4. John, this use of the phrase shows either a deep ignorance of its origin (which I suspect) or a latent racism. The Republican party, being the repository of all the Dixiecrats who left the Democratic party in the ’60s and ’70s, does have a bit of a shadow of racism hanging over it, and if I were a Republican, I’d try real hard not to seem even more racist than I already did through my association with Strom Thurmond.

    We live in a society that no longer condones the use of racist terms, even by accident, and we also live in a society that, while no longer being openly racist, still harbors a tremendous amount of racism. Blacks are nowhere near being treated as equals to whites in most of their daily interactions, and using terms like “Great White Hope” don’t help matters. I don’t know what you’re referring to as far as a liberal democrat using the term, but I’d imagine it was used either ironically or in some manner to illustrate the errors of our past.

  5. I don’t know where you get that “blacks are nowhere near being treated as equals to whites in most of their daily interactions.” You have any verifiable scientific data to back that up? That has simply not been my experience. I’ve heard several Democrats use that term on a personal level. They meant just that: a savior or larger-than-life personality. Race had nothing to do with it. I’m sure if they thought about it for a moment they would say, “Hmm, I guess that’s not the best clique to be using.” But, then Democrats have a natural aversion toward thinking anything all the way through anyway. Just my opinion there. :)

  6. No, John, I must confess that I don’t have any scientific basis for saying that racism is still rife in America, but that certainly is the consensus of my black friends, and comports with my own observations. And, if as prominent a black figure as Henry Louis Gates suffers unequal treatment by the police, and my black friends report the same sort of treatment here in Lexington, that may not be entirely scientific, but it passes my test. Of course, being a democrat, I rarely think things through, as opposed to the Republicans, who always think things through so as to do the thing that is most beneficial to big business and detrimental to poor people(as they are currently doing on health care), so I might well have gotten this one wrong.

    All I can say is that if you think blacks and whites are treated equally in our society, you’re just not looking.

  7. Are we opening the door to comment on health care?
    Gotta agree with Caleb on this one, you really have to wonder if its brought on by an inferiority complex.

  8. I agree that the congresswoman probably did not know the history of the phrase. Many of the politicians I have been in contact with are culturally illiterate regardless of party affiliation. However, that only raises the issue of why the phrase “great white hope” would be used. How did the congresswoman think this fit the context? A Freudian slip perhaps reveals the unconscious attitude.

  9. A month ago, Rep. Lynn Jenkins supported a resolution that included the very phrase “great white hope” in a historical context that made clear its origin.

    In late July, the House of Representatives passed, by unanimous consent, a measure urging the president to pardon heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, whose career brought him success in the ring and racist vitriol outside of it. Included in the resolution, which passed on July 29, was the following phrase:

    “Whereas the victory by Jack Johnson over Tommy Burns prompted a search for a White boxer who could beat Jack Johnson, a recruitment effort that was dubbed the search for the ‘great white hope.’”

    For sports historical junkies: Johnson had to wait years to get a shot at the heavyweight title, because the top-ranked white boxers refused to fight him. Once he got the chance and defeated Burns, the boxing world went on a frantic search to find the “great white hope” to take back the title.

    One of those “great white hopes” was a boxer named Jess Willard, who actually lived just 27 miles from Jenkins’ hometown of Holton, Kansas.

    Johnson’s fall would ultimately come when he took the gloves off. The target of racist violence, he was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act against “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.”

    For Rep. Lynn Jenkins to say she was unaware of any negative connotation is baloney. She knew what she was saying.

  10. Gorgegirl,

    If she knew what she was saying, she wouldn’t have said it. She knows as well as anyone that to say or be labeled racist in today’s political environment is virtually instant death (unless you’re Al Sharpton). And it should be, of course. She was simply in a high-pressure situation and resorted, without thinking, on a phrase she probably heard all around while growing up. It was wrong, of course, but you can’t expect her to know all the historiography about every clique in the American cultural linguistic history. I didn’t know the history behind all this either. I suspected something like this when I first heard it in this instances, but didn’t know. You can’t expect all your elected officials to be encyclopedias of all phrase origins.

    Not condoning her use of the phrase, and she has apologized for it, but unless this can be shown as part of an ongoing personal pattern in her life and public actions, I would chalk this one up to simple human error–this time.

  11. This is a phrase that any educated person should have known. Period. I mean, duh, there’s a famous movie about a fictionalized Jack Johnson called “The Great White Hope,” with James Earl Jones playing Johnson. It’s been played on network TV many times. This is part of our culture, and I can’t imagine anyone with sufficient education and experience to be in Congress not knowing the phrase and its origin. If she didn’t, that indicates a sufficient lack of education to disqualify her for public office.

    And, simply referring to “Al Sharpton” rather than blacks in general doesn’t make your comment any less racist, either. The sad fact is that much of America, and apparently most everyone in that great white belt from the Mississippi River to the California line, who presumably have never seen a black person other than Barack Obama on TV, thinks that, like turning off a light, we have ended racism in America. All I can say is that maybe conservatives need to talk to some black folks before commenting on racial matters.

  12. What a racist comment by Caleb Powers — “maybe conservatives need to talk to some black folks before commenting on racial matters.” In Caleb’s mind, “conservatives” and “black folks” are mutually exclusive. “Black folks” all think alike, you see, just like on the plantation.

  13. Actually, Forsan, I meant to imply that conservatives (a category which only excludes 99% of blacks) all think alike — and poorly at that.

  14. Caleb, it’s sure nice of you to serve as spokesman for African-Americans, what with you having some (anonymous) “black folks” for friends.

    As for thinking poorly, let’s follow this thread. Opposition to same-sex marriage is “conservative.” Most blacks oppose same-sex marriage. However, 99% of blacks are not conservative.

    Can you explain how those three statements are consistent?

  15. Caleb, while we’re on the subject of thinking poorly, over on another thread you agreed with Asinus Gravis, who said that a Baptist church raising a lot of money was probably more interested in “how many Muslims, or other infidels, one could kill with $130 million.” You said, “from what I know of these folks, it’s probably true.”

    So you think that when Baptists raise money, their main motivation is killing Muslims, or other infidels. Props for the tolerance, brother. Glad you’re not a hater. But a lot of “black folks” are Baptists. I hope you didn’t mean to malign them.

  16. Cheese, so I take it that you are comfortable with accusing the second-largest denomination in the country of murderous impulses, based on no evidence.

    Didn’t you say in some other post that you were born with a brain?

  17. Murderous impulses? No. Intolerance? Yes.

    And thanks for reading my other posts. It’s good to know someone’s paying attention to me!

  18. Look at it this way: they send their members all over the world to convert other people to their line of thinking under the premise that without accepting it, those people will end up in hell. It’s hard to get more intolerant than that.

  19. Cheese, we agree that intolerance is bad. We also agree that trying to convert other people is not good. However, I know an extremely nice person, a truly good person, who has gently tried to convert me for a long time. Her motivation is concern for my soul. I would rather she not do this, but I can’t really ascribe any bad motives to her. She’s doing what she thinks is right. I think we should tolerate people like that.

  20. Forsan, given that I interact with blacks every day, most of whom think that I’m a terrible conservative because I’ve never actually been a member of the Communist Party, I understand a bit about black vs. white denominations. Many of these folks are indeed Baptists. However, they are not SOUTHERN Baptists, which is the denomination Asinus and I were referring to. Having grown up in a community in which probably three quarters of its residents were Southern Baptists, yes, I do feel some qualification to discuss how they feel. I realize that this is a distinction largely limited to the South, but then so is my inter-racial experience.

    The black Baptist denominations are a different story. I think it’s unlikely that, say the black Baptist church of Martin Luther King, or the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, agree with much of anything that the Southern Baptist Convention is about. After all, the Southern Baptist Convention was the church of the segregationists: Jerry Falwell’s first big splash came when he opened a “segregation academy,” a school built for the sole purpose of allowing white kids to avoid attending an integrated school with those black Baptists, who despite holding the name Baptist, apparently weren’t considered quite the same as Falwell’s Baptists. So, I have no doubt that whatever the Southern Baptists in Dallas are worried about, love, peace, charity, and good race relations are unlikely to be included.

  21. Forsan,

    I know what you’re trying to do here. You’re putting this nice, old lady up in here, and saying “come on now, you can’t find something wrong with this nice, gentle, harmless old lady, can you?” And yes, I can. She’s still being intolerant, trying to convert you. If I were going door-to-door trying to convert people to atheism, people would call it “indoctrination.” Especially if I set up a school and taught children to embrace atheism, people would call it child abuse (and it would be). That old lady cannot try to convert you without assuming that her opinions are superior to yours. Even though she’s nice about it, she’s still being intolerant. If I were you, I’d keep my eye on her.

  22. Nice try, Caleb, but no sale. First of all, your comment about how blacks think you’re a terrible conservative because you’re not a Communist is false and condescending. Most blacks are not Communists, have very little sympathy for Communism, and serve this country proudly. Second, you ignore your earlier agreement with Asinus, where he accused Baptists of wanting to kill Muslims or other infidels. Confining that comment to white Baptists doesn’t make it any the less ridiculous.

  23. Cheese, in my earlier comment I said that I wished that the woman in question would not try to convert me (and she’s not that old). I’m not really defending her. I don’t like religious proselytizing. However, she is a very good person and it’s not worth making a big deal of what she does.

    On this blog, people are arguing with each other all the time. That could be characterized as intolerance of other people’s opinions, or an assumption by each person that his or her opinions are better than other people’s. I would call it interesting debate until it reaches the point of saying, “I’m right, and if you have another opinion, you’re evil.” That’s intolerance.

  24. Forsan, buddy, it would be nice if you actually responded to what I said. I didn’t say “all blacks” thought I was a conservative; while I do get around, I don’t imagine that all blacks (even in Lexington) know me. What I said was that “most of” (not all) my black friends think I’m a conservative, and that’s dead right. Given that I doubt you know any of these folks, I can’t imagine how you’d know if it were true or not.

    And, earlier, my conversation with Asinus proceeded as follows: I asked the rhetorical question of whether this bunch of white Baptists ever considered how many hungry people $130 million would feed. Asinus suggested that they didn’t, and suggested other things that they did think about. And I agreed. I didn’t say they were going to go out and kill people, merely that they would consider how many Muslims could be killed for $130 million before they’d consider feeding the hungry. And admittedly that’s a terrible indictment of a group, but it’s what I said, and I stand by it. All they have to do to prove me wrong is use that money to feed people.

    This goes easier if you actually respond to what others say, not what you’d like to respond to.

  25. Caleb, I quoted you and Asinus verbatim. If you’re having trouble spinning the discussion, it’s because what you said was idiotic.

    You claim that I’m not responding to what you said, then “correct” me that you didn’t say “all blacks.” Of course, I didn’t say “all blacks”, you’re just making things up, like your bogus statistic that 99% of all blacks are not conservative.

  26. Whatever, Forsan. You said “First of all, your comment about how blacks think you’re a terrible conservative because you’re not a Communist is false and condescending. Most blacks are not Communists, have very little sympathy for Communism, and serve this country proudly.” This was in response to my comment that my black friends think I’m a terrible conservative because I wasn’t a Communist. If you didn’t mean “all blacks,” what did you mean? As I suggested, I doubt that you know any of my black friends, so if you didn’t mean blacks in general, I don’t know what you meant. And, if my admittedly made up statistic that 99% of blacks are not conservative is untrue, what is the number? After all, according to exit polls, something like 95% of blacks voted for Obama, and I doubt there a lot of conservatives in that crowd.

    But there again, I’m sure there’s a reason that I’m wrong . . .

  27. Caleb, you have a reading comprehension problem. The comment about blacks thinking you’re a terrible conservative would apply only to people who know you. No one else would have an opinion. The context makes it obvious that the people being discussed are blacks who know you personally, who you claim have this opinion about you.

    As to your characterization of blacks as not conservative, I earlier asked you to reconcile that with the fact that the majority of blacks oppose same-sex marriage, which is supposedly the conservative position. Or how about capital punishment, where the majority of blacks favor it, again the supposedly conservative position. You then show the confusion in your argument by trying to equate party affiliation with personal philosophy. To a partisan like you, it’s the same thing. But even if you want to argue that 99% of blacks are Democrats, that’s not true.

    You keep wanting to hold yourself up as the Great White Father speaking for Black America. Do you realize how condescending that makes you sound? Do you think that because some of your best friends are black, you’re entitled to speak for millions of people? Why don’t you confine your comments to what Caleb Powers believes?

  28. And here’s another thing, Caleb. You keep wanting to show that 99% of blacks think this or think that, like if you know one black, you know them all, because they all think alike. Does this seem like a winning argument to you, or the projection of a bigot?

    Please don’t start telling us what 99% of gays or 99% of First Americans think.

  29. I’m sorry, Forsan. I didn’t realize you had your pulse on black public opinion quite so firmly; by your estimation, I gather, blacks are mostly conservatives, and just voted for Bro. Barack out of some sense of ethnic identity, no doubt. I guess I just missed that big seismic change in black public opinion. Glad you were there to set me right, and to speak for the blacks of America, Oh Great White Father! There could never be anything condescending about a white conservative speaking for the blacks of America!

    Which brings up an interesting point. I agree that on many social issues, blacks are more conservative than white Democrats. In many respects, this would make them natural Republicans. And, in fact, as late as the 1920s, the vast majority of black registered voters in America were Republicans. Why is that no longer true? I ask, because you obviously have a far better take on black public opinion than I do.

  30. Forsan, the only comment I made about 99% of blacks is that they weren’t conservative, which in the sense of political conservatism is probably true, though you’re right, when it comes to some (few) social issues, there is a conservative element in black thought. There was no “this or that” involved.

    I always think it is wonderful that white conservatives never tire of telling us how much blacks oppose same sex marriage, as if that makes bigotry okay, but never seem to show the same degree of interest in what blacks think of civil rights, economic justice, or other public issues. No doubt an oversight.

  31. Caleb, the first rule of holes is to stop digging, and you’re halfway to China.

    Unlike you, I never characterized blacks (or whites) as any percentage of conservative or not conservative, however those terms are defined. Unlike you, I never claimed to speak for anyone other than myself.

    Any group is going to have a wide range of opinions. But you want to put everyone in a box and put a label on it. You act like you’re the greatest friend of the black community, but you’re continually condescending by treating blacks as a single, uniform-thinking entity rather than millions of people with far more diverse thoughts than you care to acknowledge.

  32. Between you and Julian, I just can’t seem to get a straight answer . . . You must be right, I just can’t read. I didn’t ask you to speak FOR black America, I asked you to speak ABOUT it. There’s a difference. Of course, when someone won’t give a straight answer to a question, there’s usually a reason.

    And, just a little hint here, Forsan. Saying someone else has poor reading comprehension skills when you don’t agree with them is not the way to get your point across. Don’t get me wrong; all those years of law practice have made me pretty well immune to personal attacks, so it doesn’t bother me, but the attacks just look bush league.

  33. I’ll need a billing address for that, Forsan. Talk is not cheap when it comes from a lawyer . . . though it’s rarely worth what we charge.

  34. Can’t we all just get along?

    Just for the record, Caleb, I have many black friends and acquaintances. We have an elected black member on our city council right here in little ol’ rural Utah. I helped with his campaign, designing ads and posters. My wife babysits two adorable black children every day while their mother teaches at our high school. We have a black man married to a white woman in our church congregation (and we’re Mormon even!) and nobody cares. In fact, he’s one of the more popular members (maybe that’s just because he stands out). I have two black kids in the Scout troop I help lead.

    The more I learn about people (a life-long process, mind you) the more I see how superficial our differences are. The only real difference between black and white, on a case by case basis, is the amount of melanin in our skins. Local culture really plays a much bigger role. You get any group together based on a single characteristic and they automatically start assigning more and more unfounded attributes to themselves. It happens in Utah all the time. People make assumptions about the Mormons here all the time. Mormons even make many unsubstantiated assumptions about themselves. Blacks here in Utah might actually be more conservative (I don’t have numbers–don’t want to assume too much) than blacks in Kentucky. After all, the head of the Utah Republican party is black (along with the national leader, BTW).

    I had a black co-worker with whom I worked right next to for 8 hours every day down in Las Vegas who was quite conservative. He was always having battles with his more liberal hispanic wife (poor fellow). I think he was even more conservative than me (if that’s even possible).

    So, we all need to refrain from making sweeping assumptions. Sorry if this seems to have degenerated into an argument over who has more black friends, just wanted to point out that we in the “fly-over” country do have a bit more diversity than you Easterners might think.

  35. Good points, John.

    In the news lately is Representative Anh Cao, the only Republican to vote for the health care bill. He represents a district that is about 75% Democratic and 62% black. He’s a pro-life, former Jesuit seminarian of Vietnamese descent who is strongly anti-Communist. In what box does Caleb, with his manichean worldview, put Congressman Cao? And with a 62% black constituency, how did Cao get elected without at least some black votes?

  36. If you guys aren’t going to settle this on the playground after school like real men, then you should both just let this go…

  37. That’s right, John and Forsan, white conservatives are the real friends of blacks, most of whom are to the right of Barry Goldwater. I just hadn’t noticed, I guess. Thank you both for correcting my misapprehensions.

    Forsan, I would imagine that Rep. Cao got elected with considerable black support because his black opponent in the 2008 election, William Jefferson, was in the middle of a political scandal at the time, and was in so much hot water that even the New Orleans Times-Picayune wouldn’t endorse him for re-election. He has since been convicted of corruption charges, and pledges to appeal. I imagine that Cao will have a harder time when he runs against a fully functional opponent. But, Cao at least has the distinction of being the first Republican elected from this district since 1891, despite all that black Republican support down there.

    Remember, Forsan, politics is not always about ideology. When Ben Chandler was defeated for governor by Ernie Fletcher, the first Kentucky Republican governor since Louie Nunn was elected in 1967, he believed he’d won because people were voting for him. He would never listen to his advisors, who warned him that people weren’t voting for him, they were voting against the ghost of the previous Democratic governor, Paul Patton, who despite his age, managed to get caught up in a sex scandal. The next go-round, Fletcher was easily defeated by Democrat Steve Beshear and hasn’t been heard from since. Don’t get me wrong; Cao doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but politics is politics, and a win over a disabled candidate is often just that.

  38. Now, John, if you could just convince all those blacks who vote against white conservatives that you’re right, you could probably get those pesky ole civil rights laws that y’all don’t like repealed!

  39. Back to Rep. Cao for a second: I got an email today from a buddy of mine who is an expert on the Federal sentencing guidelines, and who has become fascinated with Cong. Jefferson’s case, in which he says, in part:

    “Congressman Jefferson is looking at 27-33 years under the Sentencing Guidelines. In their Memorandum, Jefferson’s attorneys point out that no Member of Congress has ever been sentenced to more than 100 months in prison! I don’t think that argument really helps him much. I think he will end up in the Guiness Book of World Records.”

    So, Cao’s great political feat was defeating a Congressman who will likely go down in history as having the longest prison sentence of any member of Congress. I can see why you all are proud of him!

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