Register Columnist: Lawmaker Who Yelled N-Word on TV Wasn’t Being Racist

Libertarian activist Joel Kurtinitis also defended Steve King against accusations of racism, suggesting it was another example of "the Left’s insistence on dishonestly weaponizing" the term

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“Why is the n-word the only remaining curse word?” Joel Kurtinitis, a former staffer on Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and a Des Moines Register opinion columnist, tweeted a week ago, apparently earnest. The night before, Georgia state Rep. Jason Spencer had disgraced himself on Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime program, Who Is America?, during a segment in which the host, posing as an Israeli military expert, prompted the now-former lawmaker to repeatedly yell “nigger!” in a purported anti-terror training exercise.

“Every word that shocked and horrified 50 years ago is now mainstream, but the n-word is so unthinkably evil, it’s a national headline when anyone says it, even as a quote,” Kurtinitis, a white, self-described “homeschooler” and “millennial political activist,” went on.

“Except rappers, of course.”

In response, a handful of members of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Heart of Iowa chapter mocked Kurtinitis for his obtuse take on race. They left an impression: Four days later, in a column headlined “Your conservative friends aren’t racists, and the accusation provides cover for real racists,” which misidentified the DSA as part of the Democratic Party, he puzzled, “This week I posted what might have been my first truly controversial tweet, and I’m still trying to figure out what was controversial about it.”

The tweet, he explained, was a reaction not to Spencer but news of the resignation of Papa John’s Chairman John Schnatter, who in May participated in a conference call intended to help prevent future PR headaches after being criticized for blaming declining pizza sales on NFL national anthem protests against racial injustice. Instead, he made matters worse, complaining on the call, “Colonel Sanders called blacks niggers” without repercussions (an allegation once contested by Sanders’ spokesperson, a black man, and, after Schnatter’s remark, the KFC magnate’s family).

Schnatter later claimed he was reacting to a suggestion that he make Kanye West a company spokesperson, an idea he said he rejected, as Kurtinitis attempted to explain: “Schnatter was pushed to resign from the board of a company he founded, over utterance of the n-word in the form of indirect quotation. He never used the word in a derogatory fashion or in reference to any person at all, but as an objection to the idea of company ads including someone who actually does have a history of using the word in discourse — rapper Kanye West.” (“Of course context matters,” Kurtinitis wrote, while failing to point out the obvious differences between white people using the word as a slur and black artists attempting to reappropriate it.)

Kurtinitis then addressed Spencer’s appearance on Who Is America? “Stupid?” he asked. “Of course. Humiliating to himself and his constituents? Absolutely.

“But a sincere representation of personal racism? That’s a stretch for everyone outside the View, where at least one panelist insisted with metaphysical certainty that ‘he enjoyed yelling that word out.’”

To the contrary, Kurtinitis argued, Schnatter and Spencer “might be racists, but there’s certainly no honest way to reach that conclusion from the exchanges in question,” as if Baron Cohen had simply pulled his con on a random, otherwise innocent lawmaker whose inner thoughts could only be ascertained by a mind reader with a crystal ball.

That, of course, was not the case. Last August, Spencer threatened a former Statehouse colleague, a black woman who criticized him for posting a photo on social media of himself next to a memorial of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, which she wanted taken down. “I can’t guarantee you won’t be met with torches but something a lot more definitive,” Spencer replied, warning her that she and others supporting her cause “will go missing in the Okefenokee” swamp. The year before that, Spencer caused an uproar after he proposed amending a law banning Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes so it would also apply to burqas. (On the Who Is America? segment, Spencer also referred to Muslims as “sand niggers.”)

On Twitter Monday, after his column was picked up by USA Today, Kurtinitis insisted that the threats Spencer directed at his former colleague were “unrelated” to what he wrote, before adding, “I said his behavior with SBC [Sacha Baron Cohen] wasn’t racist.”

Instead, he argued in his column, calling people like Spencer racist was just another example of “the Left’s insistence on dishonestly weaponizing those terms against those of us holding the line” against “real racists” who as a result are able to “fly under the radar.”

Who those “real racists” are, Kurtinitis didn’t say, although he made clear that they were not “immigration hardliners” like Steve King, who for years has publicly associated with white nationalists and supremacists, recently retweeted a British neo-Nazi — twice, unapologetically — and has parroted the exact anti-diversity rhetoric of past and present members of the Ku Klux Klan, to name just a small handful of examples contradicting Kurtinitis’ claim.

The columnist addressed two of these points Monday on Twitter as well, or tried to. “If a white supremacist says the sky is blue and I retweet it, am I a racist?” he asked of King’s retweets of open racists, who were not commenting on the weather but sharing their harsh anti-migrant views. As for King’s embrace of KKK rhetoric, Kurtinitis said: “Tons of folks who are not white supremacists — myself included — would agree to the notion that diversity is not necessarily a strength,” sharing a column he wrote that was unrelated to King. “The religious devotion to this mantra on the left is downright creepy.”

Claiming the higher ground, Kurtinitis said in his column, “The only way we establish effective communication is by agreeing to common definitions.” That struck a chord with Shane Vander Hart, a social conservative blogger in Iowa who recently encouraged liberals to pick up a dictionary, sharing a post written by his daughter Kelvey, who defended opponents of same-sex marriage against accusations of bigotry by saying they aren’t afraid of gay people like she is of spiders.

“Excellent @Joel_Kurtinitis!” Vander Hart tweeted.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.