Incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) may well be a racist, but it's time to put this controversy into perspective before Republicans wash their hands of him and end up looking tough on race. With Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), the party's minority whip, calling for new leadership, President Bush rebuking Lott publicly and conservative media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal asking for his resignation, you have to wonder if Republicans are trying to use Lott as a scapegoat to distract the public from their own sorry record on civil rights. You also have to wonder whether the Democrats will have the courage to turn a piece of political theater into a serious discussion of race and equality.
Lott may have an unhealthy interest in the Confederacy, but his stance on civil rights is indistinguishable from that of other conservative Republicans -- and just as disturbing. Consider how the NAACP rated Lott and his likely successors, Nickles and Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Lott received an "F" for voting with the civil-rights group 12 percent of the time for the first 18 months of the 107th Congress -- but the organization also gave "F"s to the other four. McConnell, who voted with the NAACP most often, still scored a miserable 21 percent. In 2001, Lott scored 27 percent on the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda's legislative scorecard, equal to McConnell and higher than the other three -- with Nickles receiving an embarrassing 0 percent.
A similar pattern can be found among civil-liberties groups. Lott's rating with the American Civil Liberties Union over the past three years adds up to 21 percent, the same as Santorum and Frist and 5 percent below Nickles and McConnell. The Leadership Council on Civil Rights found Lott on its side 7 percent of the time during the 107th Congress -- equal to Santorum and better than the flat 0 percent shared by McConnell, Nickles and Frist.
Civil-rights advocates argue that Lott shouldn't be singled out. "If we're going to have a litmus test, it needs to apply across the board, not just to Lott," notes Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. "I don't think how many blacks you have in your administration or whether you voted for the Martin Luther King Jr. bill is really relevant to the actual policies that are being implemented by the Senate, federal government and federal judges." (Oddly enough, Lott's bad publicity has embarrassed him into pledging to work harder on civil rights -- if he remains in the Senate, that is. None of the aforementioned senators has made similar promises.)
As far as specific policies, the Republican agenda isn't exactly minority-friendly. The death penalty, racial profiling, variations in the enforcement of drug laws -- all hurt minorities disproportionately. So does the "ballot security" measure included in the recent election-reform bill. Republicans, after all, came up with the idea of welfare reform, tapping into unwarranted voter fears about welfare queens and drug dealers. It's the "budget-balancing" Republicans who gutted the low-cost legal-aid program -- free legal defense for the poor -- and made it harder for minorities to get a fair hearing in court. They've stonewalled a minimum-wage increase and other economic measures that would likely help minorities afford better housing and health care.
Indeed, one of the key points that scholars such as Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson make is that the most important racial inequalities are the product of broader social inequalities. That's evident in the civil-rights groups' legislative scorecards, which rate lawmakers on such issues as education, health care and tax policy. And that's why Democrats will have to do more than use this affair as an excuse to shame Republicans into supporting affirmative action. The key point isn't whether Republicans are racists but that the agenda they pursue -- one tilted toward an affluent, white America -- is an offense to ideals of freedom and equality. That's as good a place as any for Democrats to start.
It's going to take a lot of hard work to get there, though. Even in what might be considered Lott's toughest interview, which took place Monday night on Black Entertainment Television, Ed Gordon never seized the opportunity to raise any substantive issues. He spent most of the time trying to get Lott to admit that he's a racist. When he did turn his attention to policy, he focused mainly on such symbolic issues as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, affirmative action, Charles Pickering and past voting-rights legislation. In fact, it was Lott who turned the conversation toward addressing the social and economic disadvantages that minorities face. "My actions in directly trying to help individuals and schools and communities . . . to create jobs so that people can get up out of poverty and get a good education . . . isn't that a commitment that really matters?" Lott asked. To be sure, the senator's Mississippi is no haven of racial equality, and there is little reason to see his words as anything but backpedaling and cover. But Lott came closer to focusing on the right issues than Gordon did. If Gordon had been a little less concerned with personally embarrassing Lott, he could have used the interview as a way to call on the GOP to account for its civil-rights positions.
So far the political feeding frenzy has made removing Lott a strategic necessity for the Republican Party. Staging a very public removal of a discredited leader, however, is not the same as changing a party's guiding ideas and policies. The true test of the Democrats' mettle is whether they will sustain the controversy at the level of principled political argument. They may be reluctant to do so; they've been timid on many of these issues in the last decade. But if Democrats can shape a thoughtful discussion about issues of race and civil rights in America, this whole controversy will have served a far greater purpose than replacing one conservative with another.
Alex Gourevitch is a Prospect writing fellow.