(UPDATE: Great quote – “The first rule of Virginia Beach GOP racism is, you do not talk about Virginia Beach GOP racism.” – Randy Klear on Facebook – promoted by lowkell)
A bit earlier this evening, I spoke with Pastor Joe Flores, “Founding and Senior Pastor of the Perfecting Saints Worship Center In Virginia Beach, VA.” The discussion, not surprisingly, was about racism in Virginia Beach, and specifically regarding the racist email forwarded by the Virginia Beach Republican Committee chair, David Bartholomew. The question is whether this was an isolated incident, or part of a broader pattern of endemic racism – and denial that racism even exists, in the case of people like Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms – among Virginia Beach Republicans. Pastor Flores is an interesting person to have this conversation with, as he is multiracial (part African American, part Hispanic) but adopted and raised by white parents (Pastor Flores also points out that his father was a conservative Republican who continued to strongly support Richard Nixon after Watergate). With that, continue with me over the “flip” for the informative, entertaining interview with Pastor Flores.
First, Pastor Flores asked me to read him the racist email. Flores’ first reaction was that he wasn’t surprised, given his experience of conservatives “engaging in racist mindsets if nothing else.” According to Flores, there’s “no doubt” that this racist mindset is out there, the only question is whether it’s “seeping into Republican politics, institutionalizing itself into the system.”
Pastor Flores then related a story of a meeting between Mayor Sessoms and a number of African American leaders. Pastor Flores brought up the issue of racism, and the response from Mayor Sessoms was stunning: according to Flores, Sessoms “looked us in the face and said, ‘I do not believe that racism exists in Virginia Beach.’” According to Flores, this outright denial of racism even existing was a “stunner” to everyone in the room, that Virginia Beach schoolboard member Sandra Smith-Jones said she “couldn’t believe it.”
What is this denial of racism by white Republicans like Will Sessoms all about? According to Pastor Flores, they don’t even perceive their own mindsets; it’s “unconscious racism at best, ignorant racism at worst.” Pastor Flores then talked about his upbringing, which I mentioned earlier, in order to illustrate that he has a “deep reference point” for this mental attitude. Sometimes, Pastor Flores told me, it would take him a week or more of discussion to convince his white father that something was racist. The point is, Pastor Flores spent many years dealing with ingrained, unconscious racism and denial of racism’s existence. He’s used to that.
In the case of the Virginia Beach Republican Committee chair, however, Pastor Flores believes what we’re dealing with is “outright racism.” Furthermore, Flores says that Virginia Beach Republicans – who elected David Bartholemew unanimously – “know who this guy is; they’re buddies, they have backyard barbecues together, they know who he is and he knows who he is.” So what’s with the denial? According to Flores, it’s all a game of sorts – “They play like they’re not racist, they’ve learned to react with shock and dismay when the subject comes up.”
Flores then related a story about being on a panel with Bob McDonnell, in which Flores asked McDonnell about Republicans showing up at Obama rallies with loaded weapons, threatening to kill Obama, etc. Flores then asked McDonnell “what are you doing to counteract the atmosphere of anti-black, anti-Obama, racist, angry [rhetoric and behavior]?”
McDonnell’s response: “he said he didn’t understand my question…McDonnell never denounced racism.” Instead, what McDonnell did was play the “game,” namely the “I don’t get it” game. Except that, Pastor Flores believes, they may really not “get it,” given how “heavily indoctrinated” they are in their ideology, “philosophical dogma,” etc. According to Flores, they simply “are not able to think from another person’s perspective…they just don’t get it.”
Finally, Pastor Flores commented on the situation in Virginia Beach in general that “the electoral process here is racist,” that it’s “almost impossible to get elected as an African American here.” One problem is that elections are all at-large. Another problem is that Will Sessoms spent almost $1 million, about 10 times more than his Democratic opponent did, in the last election. That kind of says it all…
P.S. Just for a bit of context, keep in mind that Will Sessoms was the person who endorsed John McCain in 2008, but then had flyers with his image photoshopped next to Barack Obama at distributed at heavily African American polls on election day! For more on that, see Vivian Paige’s blog. Of course, Sessoms claimed he didn’t know anything about any of this, but that obviously is not believable.