This post has been updated.
A CPAC session sponsored by Tea Party Patriots and billed as a primer on teaching activists how to court black voters devolved into a shouting match as some attendees demanded justice for white voters and others shouted down a black woman who reacted in horror.
The session, entitled “Trump The Race Card: Are You Sick And Tired Of Being Called A Racist When You Know You’re Not One?” was led by K. Carl Smith, a black conservative who mostly urged attendees to deflect racism charges by calling themselves “Frederick Douglass Republicans.”
Disruptions began when he started accusing Democrats of still being the party of the Confederacy — a common talking point on the right.
“I don’t care how much the KKK improved,” he said. “I’m not going to join the KKK. The Democratic Party founded the KKK.”
Lines like that drew shouts of praise from some attendees and murmurs of disapproval from one non-conservative black attendee, Kim Brown, a radio host and producer with Voice of Russia, a broadcasting service of the Russian government.
But then questions and answers began. And things went off the rails.
Scott Terry of North Carolina, accompanied by a Confederate-flag-clad attendee, Matthew Heimbach, rose to say he took offense to the event’s take on slavery. (Heimbach founded the White Students Union at Towson University and is described as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
“It seems to be that you’re reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males,” Terry said, adding he “came to love my people and culture” who were “being systematically disenfranchised.”
Smith responded that Douglass forgave his slavemaster.
“For giving him shelter? And food?” Terry said.
At this point the event devolved into a mess of shouting. Organizers calmed things down by asking everyone to “take the debate outside after the presentation.”
Brown, who took offense at the suggestion modern Democrats were descendants of the KKK, tried to ask a question later once things finally calmed down. She was booed and screamed at by audience members.
“Let someone else speak!” one attendee in Revolutionary War garb shouted.
“You’re not welcome!” a white-haired older woman yelled.
Eventually she asked a question. It was about whether Republicans should call out racist ads.
Attendees interviewed by TPM afterwards expressed outrage at the way the event turned out. Not at Terry and Heimbach — they were mad at Brown.
Chad Chapman, 21, one of the few black attendees, said overall he enjoyed the event — except “there were lots of interruptions, mainly because of the woman.”
I asked whether he was concerned about the question from Terry and Heimbach.
“No they were just telling the truth,” he said. You mean you agree blacks are systematically disenfranchising whites, I asked?
“I listen to anybody’s point of view, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.
A media scrum formed around Terry immediately after the close of the event. A woman wearing a Tea Party Patriots CPAC credential who had shouted down Brown earlier urged him not to give his name to the press.
She wouldn’t give her name either, but I asked her what she thought.
“Look, you know there’s no doubt the white males are getting really beat up right now, it’s unfair,” she said. “I agree with that. My husband’s one of them. But I don’t think there’s a clear understanding about what really is going on. He needs to read Frederick Douglass and I think that question should be asked to everyone in this room who is debating.”
Another white participant, Jeremy Kohn, got into a respectful discussion with Brown afterwards about the history of slavery and whether the party had a race problem. Brown explained why, after attending several CPACs, she had felt compelled to raise the issue that day.
“I just felt honestly black Americans have a lot in common with conservatives, the problem is your language and the way you — not you as an individual, you as a movement — the way racist language is overlooked,” she said.
I asked Kohn whether he was concerned, after talking to Brown, about the language used by Terry and Heimbach.
“Concerned in what way?” he said. I explained I meant the part about how whites were being disenfranchised by blacks en masse and the Confederacy wasn’t being respected.
“I would just say that if you cast a fraudulent vote you are depriving someone else of the right to vote, because you are canceling a vote that was legitimately cast,” he said. I pressed again — even leaving the voting issue aside, was it right to say white culture was being denigrated as Terry had?
“I’m not going to make a general statement about that, but obviously whatever culture you come from there’s somebody who is opposed to it,” he said.
Later after asking if he would be quoted, he requested I add the following statement: “90 percent of blacks vote for Democrats regularly.”
“It’s hard to talk about without offending people.”
Oddly enough, the unnamed woman who had told Terry to conceal his name ended up talking to Brown afterwards and it actually approached something resembling a constructive dialogue, even if she kicked it off by complaining about an “entitlement mentality” among liberal African Americans. She explained that despite appearing outwardly white, she was one quarter Korean and her mother’s side of the family had been called “Japs” in the 1950s. She added she had gotten heat from “generally white men” who mocked her for going to school at UC-Berkeley over its large Asian population without knowing she was Asian herself.
Brown asked if her experience made her feel any sympathy for what African Americans experience.
“I feel that there is a certain disadvantage coming out of slavery, they had to make it on their own,” she said. “There are certain endowments handed down to you and on the education level the black community has not had a fair share.”
“Correct,” Brown replied, segueing into a discussion of generational wealth gaps between races.
They were joined by an older white man, George Vermillion, who had come by to make sure Brown knew he wasn’t one of the people who had muttered remarks while she was speaking. He said he was concerned “a little bit” about Terry and Haimbach, but that “we all have our own individual voices.”
“Race is such a weird issue,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about it.”
Update: A spokesman e-mailed me a statement from K. Carl Smith on the above events. Here’s the full text.
I was invited by the Tea Party Patriots to conduct a breakout session entitled: “Trump The Race Card” and share the Frederick Douglass Republican Message. In the middle of my delivery, while discussing the 1848 “Women’s Rights Convention,” I was rudely interrupted by a woman working for the Voice of Russia. She abruptly asked me: “How many black women were there?” This question was intentionally disruptive and coercive with no way of creating a positive dialogue.
In addition, a young man who wasn’t a Tea Party Patriot, made some racially insensitive comments, he said: “Blacks should be happy that the slave master gave them shelter, clothing, and food.” At the conclusion of the breakout session, I further explained to him the Frederick Douglass Republican Message which he embraced, bought a book, and we left as friends.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.