Comment: Having It Both Ways on Race

The Trent Lott affair reminds us of the American capacity for mass denial, particularly where race is concerned. Republican racism, certainly, is an open secret. It isn't limited to good-old-boy senators from Mississippi or South Carolina who are relics from a broadly discredited past. Ever since Lyndon Johnson declared, "We shall overcome," and Richard Nixon countered with his southern strategy, the Republican grand electoral design has been based on locking up the white South while playing to the white backlash in the North. Often the appeals to race are tacit, sometimes they are crude; but the stance is unmistakable to anyone who bothered to notice.

But few did, until Lott blurted out his nostalgia for segregation. So powerful is the mass denial that it took several days before his remarks even became a story.

It was in the 2002 election, after all, that a popular Democratic governor in Georgia was ousted by the voters, in large part because he spent some of his political capital removing the Confederate symbol from the state flag. In much of the South, partisan preferences were as racially polarized in 2002 as they have ever been.

The basic rule of partisan politics in the Deep South is that the Democrat needs to maximize black turnout while enticing a fraction of the white vote on such nonracial "bridge" issues as education or economic development. A Democrat winning a majority of the white vote is unheard of. The Republican, meanwhile, tries to hold down black turnout (as Bush's operatives recently failed to do in the Louisiana Senate runoff) while maximizing support from the good old boys. Even in supposedly moderate North Carolina, Jesse Helms kept getting re-elected with the crudest appeals to racism. Does anybody think that race is still not a huge fault line in American life?

In recent years, Republicans have tried to have it both ways. They have rolled back affirmative action, slyly claiming to reject any form of discrimination. They have slashed social outlays that disproportionately benefit blacks, using a rhetoric of breaking the cycle of dependency and trotting out black conservatives to certify the policy. Their "faith based" gambit of contracting out social services to local churches conveniently enlists ambitious black ministers. They have appointed highly visible tokens (and a handful of genuine power players such as Colin Powell) while pursuing domestic policies largely congenial to the Strom Thurmonds and the Trent Lotts. As this magazine has documented, Republican political strategists have continued using crude "ballot security" tactics intended to intimidate black voters. And, of course, Lott's Republican Senate in the Clinton years stonewalled one judicial appointee after another, with black moderates comprising a disproportionate share of those rejected.

To camouflage the actual program, George Bush, père and fils, positively wallowed in a rhetoric of compassion. W.'s acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention could have been mistaken for vintage Bobby Kennedy. As Bush's actions have since demonstrated, talk is cheap.

But occasionally talk is very expensive. Conservative commentators were among the first to rebuke Trent Lott, because his candor spoils the game. As they try to pry black voters away from their longstanding Democratic allegiance, Republicans still need the good old boys in their core voting base. They just don't need avowed segregationists as outspoken leaders.

The broader scandal here isn't just about leaders. It's about voters. If racism were not still pervasive, poor white Mississippi voters would be voting their pocketbook interests rather than their perceived racial interests. Yet the transformation of the legacy of racism precisely takes leadership. It takes Republican leaders in the tradition of Lincoln -- a majority of Republican senators voted with liberal Democrats to enact the landmark civil-rights laws of the 1960s -- and it takes Democratic leaders to offer a pocketbook politics that builds multiracial coalitions. Above all, it takes leaders willing to take political risks on behalf of principles, such as Johnson and Lincoln. Even today, there can be no more worthwhile principle than acknowledging that America still has a big racial problem.

One odd coda to the Lott affair was the rediscovery of race by one Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas spent his earlier career as a token black conservative in the Reagan administration, denying race and racial remedy. During his confirmation hearing, he saved his hide by discovering racial injustice and pronouncing his critics (later vindicated) a "high-tech lynching" mob.

In the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia statute banning cross burning, Justice Thomas electrified the courtroom by declaring that such burnings are uniquely harmful forms of symbolic speech "unlike any other symbol in our society" because of their intended terrorizing effect. Thomas' logic was dubious (what about swastikas?) but observers marveled first that Thomas had spoken at all and second that he had spoken on the unique role of race.

Maybe Thomas will again find his voice when the Court takes up the Michigan affirmative-action cases. And maybe, when Thurmond and Lott are long gone, America will again have one of its episodic bouts of progress on race.

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