A Democratic lawmaker from Minnesota criticized Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act by calling Justice Clarence Thomas “Uncle Thomas,” then saying he didn’t know “Uncle Tom” was a racist epithet.
On his Twitter account Tuesday, state Rep. Ryan Winkler called the justices’ 5-4 ruling striking down a part of the law racist, and the work of “four accomplices to race discrimination and one Uncle Thomas.” Justice Thomas, who is black, was one of the five justices in the majority.
That tweet was quickly deleted, and Mr. Winkler, who is white and represents some upper middle class suburbs west-southwest of Minneapolis, offered a conditional-tense quasi-apology in subsequent tweets.
He said he “didn’t think it was offensive to suggest that Justice Thomas should be even more concerned about racial discrimination than colleagues. But if such a suggestion is offensive, I apologize.”
However Mr. Winkler, whose website says he has an undergraduate history degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, seemed to dig the hole deeper in a subsequent tweet, in which he said the racism of the term “Uncle Tom” was disputed and unknown to him.
“I did not understand ‘Uncle Tom’ as a racist term, and there seems to be some debate about it. I do apologize for it, however,” he said.
Former Rep. Allen West, a prominent black Republican, poured scorn on Mr. Winkler’s explanation and said the lawmaker should resign, noting the precedent of cooking-show host Paula Deen being fired and losing endorsement deals for admitting long-ago use of racial epithets.
Later still, as backlash against his comments spread through political blogs and social network sites, Mr. Winkler issued a statement through the state House apologizing for his usage, though he neither specified the word nor mentioned Justice Thomas.
“In expressing that disappointment [with Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision] on Twitter, I hastily used a loaded term that is offensive to many. My words were inappropriate and I apologize,” he said. “I regret that my comments have distracted from the serious dialogue we must have going forward to ensure racial discrimination has no place in our election system.”