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Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s retroactive endorsement of Jim Crow apartheid, at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party on December 5, was a rebel yell in the wrong venue. His days are numbered as majority leader and, if he follows others who have lost congressional leadership posts, he may leave the Senate altogether.
Lott’s gaffe was a gift to Democrats and others seeking to show how the cynical use of racism help build the modern GOP. Ever since Lyndon B. Johnson enlisted the Democratic Party in the civil rights movement in the mid-’60s, the Republicans have attempted to exploit the white backlash. Their success is manifest in the solidly GOP South.
Although many Democrats have been slow to exploit their windfall, former President Bill Clinton joined the fray. “How can they jump on him,” Clinton asked in a December 18 speech, “when they’re out there repressing, trying to run black voters away from the polls and running under the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina?”
Lott must have felt blind-sided. After all, he was there when the now-sainted Ronald Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the infamous place where civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were slain in 1964, in one of the most horrific incidents of that turbulent era.
Reagan’s decision to start his campaign in that tainted location was a symbolic embrace of segregationist forces. At the time, his challenge to the shaky civil rights consensus seemed a needless provocation. In retrospect, we can see that Reagan’s unambiguous allegiance with the reactionary forces set the mold for future GOP strategies.
In fact, Reagan’s wink at the segregationists was a continuation of the Republicans’ “Southern strategy,” a line of attack initiated by Richard Nixon in his 1968 presidential campaign. This strategy explicitly used blacks’ quest for civil rights as an issue to scare whites into the ranks of the Republican Party.
It worked. The GOP’s success in using race as a wedge is one of the primary reasons the old Confederacy now casts its lot with the party of Lincoln. By “racializing” the Democrats’ “liberal agenda” and contrasting it with the traditional confederate call for “states rights,” the GOP produced a major political realignment.
Lott’s sin was revealing the unsavory motives behind that realignment. As Clinton says, “He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads every day.”
Lott has made multiple apologies, but many conservatives have called for him to give up his leadership post. Although President Bush has not publicly asked Lott to step down, the White House clearly is concerned about the political damage he is causing Republicans. When Colin Powell weighed in against him, it was a clear signal that the White House wants him gone.
Republicans may benefit from not having Lott to kick around, but our nation suffers if he merely becomes a sacrificial lamb for the racial sins of the segregationist past. After all, Lott evoked an American apartheid that’s not too far from our present reality. Just check the racial disparities in the indices of social misery, or the racial ratios of prison inmates or homeless shelters, and it’s clear we have a long way to go to wipe out the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
These stark racial disparities are an embarrassment to a nation that claims to have left its racist past behind. Lott’s rebel yell reminded us of all that. And as the leader of the Senate, he’d be a constant reminder. That’s why he has to go.
His exit from leadership will allow this nation to pat itself on the back for condemning our racist past, as we continue to ignore the racial disparities that plague us still.
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