Last Thursday, senators held a party celebrating the 100th birthday of their colleague Strom Thurmond, who is retiring when his term expires at the end of the year. Thurmond's career is long and varied, but it is pocked by his 1948 presidential campaign as a Dixiecrat, a party founded to oppose desegregation and the passage of civil rights laws.
According to the Dixiecrat platform, the party supported "the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." During his campaign, Thurmond stated, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
That year, Thurmond garnered over 1,000,000 votes and won the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina, his home state. Although Thurmond later repudiated the beliefs that drove his Dixiecrat campaign, his candidacy will forever remain a sad chapter in the checkered history of American race relations.
In what he has since characterized as "a poor choice of words", Trent Lott, the top Republican in the Senate, implied that he wished Thurmond's candidacy had done a little better in 1948. While paying tribute to Senator Thurmond at his centennial celebration, Lott announced, "I want to say this about my state [of Mississippi]: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
At best, Lott's comments show that he does not possess the political acumen required to lead one of the two major parties in the U.S. Senate. At worst, his comments show a latent hostility to the progress made over the last fifty years in ensuring that the American Dream is available to every citizen, regardless of race. Either way, it suggests that Lott is not fit to be the Majority Leader when the Senate reconvenes next year.
Some will argue that Republicans are subject to a double-standard on issues of race. Just last year, when Democrat Robert Byrd--who has the dubious distinction of being the only former member of the Ku Klux Klan currently in the U.S. Senate--repeatedly used the term "niggers" in a television interview, it was barely noticed by the major media and it elicited nary a peep of condemnation from other Democrats. Although there very well may be a double-standard for Republicans, complaining about it won't solve the problem. The only way the double-standard will disappear is by changing the perceptions that underlie it. That's why Lott's comments are so politically damaging; they help cement a perception that Republicans desperately need to dispel.
All too often, Republicans are unfairly accused of being racist for taking legitimate policy stands against programs like affirmative action. But when Republicans propose solutions like school choice, which would help emancipate black children from substandard schools, Democrats consistently choose the money of teachers unions over the constituency that reflexively rewards them with 90% of their vote. The unions stay happy and the schools stay stagnant while another generation of black children is denied a decent education. Unfortunately, Republicans will have a hard time delivering this message while people like Lott give black voters reasons to question the motives of the Republican Party. That's why, for pragmatic as well as moral reasons, Lott should be condemned by his fellow Republicans.
Regardless of whether Lott actually supports segregation--and I'm pretty sure he doesn't--it is very difficult for excuse-makers to interpret his statement as being anything other than an endorsement of segregation. Instead of standing on feeble ground to defend the indefensible, they should stand aside, and let Lott receive the rebuke he deserves.
For the good of the Republican Party, but more importantly, for the good of the country, Trent Lott should step down as the Republican leader in the Senate. If he doesn't, now would be a good time for President Bush to display the compassion in his conservatism by publicly calling for Lott to resign his leadership post.
|Copyright 2002, Evan Coyne Maloney||All Worldwide Rights Reserved|