NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Huffington Post reporter Tyler Tynes was sitting in a corner of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center transcribing audio when a man walked up to him. The man -- tall, middle-aged and white -- asked Tynes if he'd been the person asking questions at a just-completed panel on how the Republican Party could capture the minority vote.
It was Thursday, March 3, the second day of the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference, and Tynes was nonplussed. Yes, he said as dozens of people walked by him and the man, that was me.
The lanky man pressed Tynes on his line of questioning, which he said had left him and others in the room puzzled. Tynes had asked the panel members whether the GOP understood that when Republican candidates make racist remarks, it tends to be off-putting for voters of color. (No Republican candidate has gotten more than 40 percent of the black vote in a presidential election since 1936.)
The man told Tynes that he didn't understand how anything this year's GOP candidates have said could be offensive to “the blacks.”
Tynes asked the man if he knew anything about Donald Trump. The man responded vaguely that Trump was "an asshole," but insisted there was no way a candidate like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) could be conveying similar messages -- though he added that neither Trump nor Cruz has actually said anything racist. The second time the man said "the blacks," Tynes noted that the term isn't really in fashion anymore. The man then accused Tynes of having “an agenda."
Before we arrived at CPAC, we didn’t have much of an idea of what we were getting into. Within a few minutes, however, we realized we'd stepped into one of those environments. You learn to recognize them pretty quickly -- they're the places where whiteness is the default way of thinking and being. It's not that people of color are met with open hostility if they show up at places like these (at least most of the time). But it always becomes clear, in a million little ways, that we're an afterthought, an Other. In places like these, if someone gets up and makes a speech about "people," they don't always mean "people." A lot of the time, they just mean "white people."
Most of CPAC's 2,600-plus attendees this year were white, and during the two days we were there, we saw maybe 30 black people. At times, it seemed as though people thought we were protesters instead of reporters.
During our interactions with attendees, two assumptions kept coming up: that we were writers for HuffPost’s Black Voices team -- who are all great! -- or that we wouldn’t report any story fairly. When we clarified that we are politics reporters, the bemused looks we got seemed to say: Only culture writers write about race. What does race have to do with political coverage? When we said we were with The Huffington Post, that seemed to clear things up for people.
Some folks, like the man who spoke to Tynes, took offense at our questions. Some people either didn't understand what we were asking or pretended not to. Michael Nabjer, a Trump supporter from South Texas, seemed confused as to why anyone would think the real estate mogul might be racist. When we suggested some reasons, his answer was a non sequitur.
"I don’t think he’s racist," Nabjer, who was decked out in "Make America Great Again" gear, told HuffPost. "How did the man become a billionaire if he would treat people disrespectfully?" He then ended the interview.
Some people stared openly at our clothes and our kinky hair. A group of college students laughed at the Howard University hoodie one of us wore. "That's not Harvard," one kid said. (It's not. It's a historically black university in Washington, D.C. Thurgood Marshall went to law school there.) Another student looked one of us up and down and said, "What is she wearing?" (Answer: She was wearing a black sweater, black tights and black boots. She looked nice.)
We also saw a man in a bright red polo shirt wearing a gold pin that read "Goldwater for President" -- a reference to former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who died in 1998. Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act and was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan during his 1964 presidential bid.
But if many CPAC attendees seemed dismissive of the thoughts, feelings and concerns of black people, they were only following the example of many speakers. During a panel on criminal justice reform, we sat and watched conservatives of all races argue that mass incarceration was not a human rights catastrophe, but rather a sign of how America's war on crime has been a success. And it all came back to "culture" -- with the implication that if black people are locked up or dying in poverty or being killed by police at higher rates than white people, maybe it's kind of, you know, their own fault.
“Ballooning prison population, that’s a culture issue," said Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke during the criminal justice panel. "It is a behavior issue."
Clarke offered up a tale of a single mom living in the “ghetto,” arguing that mass incarceration, which destroys families and communities of color, was doing a good thing by keeping drug dealers off her block and away from her son.
“If you’re a struggling mom living in a slum or ghetto... and you’re doing everything that you can to keep your kid away from that dope dealer who’s standing out there every day and who is an influence -- do you know that to get that guy off the street, for as long is allowed by law, is a big deal to her?" he said. "She doesn’t care about statistics."
At one point during CPAC, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was met with raucous applause for dismissing racism within the Republican Party by shouting “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter” -- two phrases that have become stock responses for people who'd prefer not to have a conversation about whether black lives matter.
Meanwhile, an NRA ad playing at the conference featured an older black woman talking about the "gangbangers and drug dealers" who roam through her "government high-rise," and explaining that she needs a gun to protect herself. In just 60 seconds, the ad managed to hit on tropes of Scary Young Urban Black People while also using a black woman to advance the interests of the NRA, whose board members are mostly white men.
We should point out that coded racial language and exploitation of the black experience didn't dominate the conference. Most people in attendance were quite nice and didn't appear to make assumptions about us because of our race, and most of the panels and speakers discussed conservative topics without the uncomfortable racial tinge. We encountered many friendly faces and had polite, pleasant conversations with people of all races, religions and backgrounds.
We would love to report on the event again. It was, for better and for worse, a chance to watch democracy in action. A breathtaking energy pulsed through the room. We just wish that all of the people there were like the majority of the people there. And we hope the majority can help the rest get there.