This morning I want to argue that TRENT LOTT IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY'S MONICA LEWINSKY.
This week the nation has again been brought face-to-face with its history through the insensitive remarks of Senator Chester Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi.
While it's gradually changing, the problem, so far, has been that the media has focused almost exclusively on the words Senator Lott used at the 100th birthday party celebration for Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), and similar words spoken in Mississippi during Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.
If those were the only two statements, that might merely reflect two "mistakes." But Senator Lott has a pattern and long history of such statements, and parallel actions. And, so far, there's been little media focus on the pattern.
SENATOR LOTT'S PATTERN
Time Magazine is now reporting on "Trent Lott's Segregationist College Days At Ole Miss," where "the Senator helped lead a fight to keep blacks out of his national fraternity. At a time when racial issues were roiling campuses across the South, some chapters of Sigma Nu fraternity in the Northeast were considering admitting African-American members, a move that would have sent a powerful statement through the tradition-bound world of sororities and fraternities. At the time, Lott was president of the intra-fraternity council at the University of Mississippi. When the issue came to a head at Sigma Nu's national convention - known as a "Grand Chapter" - in the early 1960s, 'Trent was one of the strongest leaders in resisting the integration of the national fraternity in any of the chapters,' recalls former CNN President Tom Johnson, then a Sigma Nu member at the University of Georgia."
According to the organization People For The American Way, the public record shows that while even Senator Thurmond changed somewhat with the times, Senator Lott has not. They point out that:
"In 2001, Lott cast the only vote against the confirmation of Judge Roger Gregory, the first African American judge ever seated on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Thurmond voted for Gregory.
"In 1983, Lott voted against creating a federal holiday for civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurmond voted for the holiday.
"In 1982, Lott voted against the Voting Rights Act extension, which (Ralph) Neas" - President of People for the American Way - "called "the most important civil rights vote in the 1980s." Thurmond supported it.
"In 1978, Lott voted against the 1978 District of Columbia Voting Rights Constitutional Amendment. Thurmond voted with the two-thirds majorities in both houses that passed the amendment, which eventually failed to win approval in enough states to be ratified."
The organization FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) reports that:
"Lott's long history of support for racist and neo-Confederate causes is generally missing from coverage of the Thurmond controversy.
"As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978, Lott was behind a successful effort to re-instate the citizenship of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Associated Press, 6/2/78).
"In 1981, the year he became house minority whip, Lott prodded the Reagan administration into taking the side of Bob Jones University and other segregated private schools that were suing the Internal Revenue Service to restore tax exemptions withdrawn a decade earlier because of the schools' discriminatory racial policies (Washington Post, 1/18/82).
"In 1982 and 1990, Lott voted against extending the Voting Rights Act, the law passed to insure that minorities especially Southern blacks - had access to the voting booth.
"In 1990, he voted against continuation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the crown jewel of civil-rights legislation that desegregated education and public accommodations.
"In 1983 Lott voted against a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1994 he voted to de-fund the MLK Jr. Holiday Commission.
"Lott's appointment to chair the 1984 Republican Platform committee occasioned a soft New York Times article (8/14/84) describing Lott as "a legislator who displays political shrewdness while avoiding making waves." That was the same year Lott boasted in a speech to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, 'The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform' (Southern Partisan, 4th quarter, 1984).
"A few months later, in an interview with the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan (4th quarter, 1984), Lott - himself a member and promoter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans - repeated Jefferson Davis' posthumous endorsement of the GOP platform, throwing in a reference to the Civil War as "the War of Northern Aggression."
No one asked Lott then if the original 'party of Lincoln' was becoming the party of Lincoln's chief nemesis.
"It wasn't until 1998 that national press scrutiny focused on one neo-Confederate group - the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). The CCC is the successor to the notorious white Citizens Councils, whose history dates back half a century to the 1950s when the groups were referred to as the "uptown Klan." Today's CCC rails against "race-mixing" and immigrants, and proudly associates with extreme rightists, from white supremacist David Duke to French racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie LePen.
"In December 1998, Lott denied any personal knowledge of the CCC, falsely claiming through a spokesperson that his links to the group amounted to a single speech made over a decade before he'd entered the Senate.
"In 1992, Sen. Lott praised the CCC as keynote speaker at its national convention; in 1997, he met with top CCC leaders in his Senate office; his column appeared throughout the 1990s in the group's newsletter, which once published a cheerful photo of Lott and CCC members who were also his close relatives. Lott was also the guest of honor at a 1982 banquet hosted by a Mississippi chapter of the old White Citizens Councils (Extra!, 3-4/99)."
SENATOR LOTT AND RACISM
Let's examine the word. There was no such word as "racism" until 1936. Whether it was Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington or Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, none of them used the word racism to describe the experience of Blacks in America. The word didn't exist until 1936. And it didn't derive its original meaning from the African American experience. Racism was used to describe the plight of Jews under Hitler's Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Fascist Italy. African Americans then embraced and adopted the word to describe their own situation. But States' rights versus Union - not racism - is what, historically, has defined our experience and struggle in America.
I have deliberately not called Senator Trent Lott a racist. I haven't because: (a) that's a heavy word to drop on someone and it shouldn't be thrown around lightly; and (b) for me, it has at least five levels of meaning, and I want to make sure if I use the word that the American people understand what I mean.
First. There are philosophical racists. The gentleman in downstate Illinois who openly preaches that Whites are genetically superior and Blacks, Jews, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans are genetically inferior is, philosophically, a racist.
Second. Racism sometimes takes the form of prejudice. Prejudice is a pre-judgment about an individual on the basis of a group stereotype. Even though it was kind of a spoof, the movie "White Men Can't Jump," was based on such a stereotype. Spud Webb, the 5'6" former NBA player who won the 1986 Slam Dunk contest, said people refer to that stereotype as "the White man's disease." Now I know about John Thomas, but most world record holders in the high jump have been White. So much for that stereotype!
Third. There are racist actions. When African American churches are burned to the ground; when Black men in chains are dragged behind trucks; when Jewish synagogues have swastikas painted on them; and when Islamic Mosques are physically violated; those are all racist actions.
Fourth. There is such a thing a cultural racism. Most Americans have high morals. They work hard and play by the rules. They try to treat everyone fairly. They're sincere. They don't want to be racist. But some Americans just have limited knowledge, limited experiences and limited exposure. They are simply uninformed and sometimes say insensitive things out of ignorance. They just lack information and knowledge. So they can only be as good as they know to be within the bounds of cultural racism.
Finally, there is institutional racism. We've actually made significant progress as a country on the first four levels of racism as I've defined them. The most insidious level of racism, however, is institutional racism. When the unemployment rate for Blacks is more than twice that of Whites, that's institutional racism. When the infant morality rate for Black babies is several times that of White babies, that's institutional racism. When they want to tear down and rebuild an airport and put 195,000 new jobs and $20 billion of economic activity in a predominately White area that already has an over-abundance of both, and then put most of the Section 8 housing in an area where we live with few jobs, few services and high taxes, then you know you're looking at institutional --well, unbalanced economic growth.
Now how does this apply to Senator Lott? Let me suggest that Senator Lott's words have to be put in an historical context and prioritized.
Yes, I'm deeply concerned about the words expressed by Senator Lott at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. But I'm even more concerned about the words he used to EXPLAIN them. He said he wasn't praising Senator Thurmond's past racial stance, but he liked his commitment to a "strong defense" and his "fiscal conservatism."
Before the Civil War the Democratic slave masters used to have anti-Black conventions where they called us "out-our-names." But after the Civil War, when they had lost power and were trying to get it back, they knew they had to change their language. So instead of holding anti-black conventions, the same former Democratic slave masters had anti-taxpayer conventions - since they were being taxed to pay for the new freedmen's education, health care, and housing. They were known as fiscal conservatives, and they called the Radical Republicans of that day - who were supporting such programs - "tax and spend liberals." That's the origin of the phrase!
But what about the "defense" part that Senator Lott liked? Well, these fiscal conservatives aren't fiscally conservative when it comes to spending $400 billion annually on the military. They're not fiscally conservative when it comes spending $200 billion or more to invade Iraq. They're not fiscally conservative when it comes to granting the top 1% of wealthy Americans the lion's share of a $1.35 trillion tax cut, and making it permanent, which will create record deficits as far as the eye can see.
They're only fiscally conservative when it comes providing all Americans with high quality health care, providing all Americans with a high quality public education, providing all Americans with affordable housing, or providing all Americans with a clean environment.
So when these politicians get up and say they're fiscal conservatives, they're calling you "out-your-name" again . . only this time it's by another, more clever name. So I'm more concerned about the EXPLANATION Senator Lott gave than I am about the original words that stirred all the controversy!
LOTT AND THE REPUBLICAN PARTY'S RESPONSE
What has been Senator Lott's and the Republican Party's response? To attack my father and use my father's words at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco - "charge it to my head and not to my heart" - as though there's some kind of "moral equivalency" between my father's one-time New York "mistake" (never to be repeated), and a 25-year pattern of racially insensitive statements and actions.
No, Senator Lott and Republicans, it won't fly. There's no "moral equivalency" between my father's personal mistake and your long-standing public record.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN ALL OF THIS?
Why has it taken so long for all of this to come out? There was no investigation required. Senator Lott said it on C-SPAN with the whole world watching. In too many instances, the media is only a little more sensitive to such racial statements than Senator Lott and the Republican Party. And let's be honest, it took Democrats and all of us too long to respond as well.
But let me tell you more about the media. Virtually all of the long-history that I laid out to you above has been on the desk of every news room in America for over a year - in my book, A MORE PERFECT UNION, Pages 46-to-48. Every major anchor on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, FOX, Meet The Press, Face The Nation, This Week, Fox News Sunday, CNN Sunday; every major columnist in America has a copy; every major newspaper in America has a copy. Not one media outlet in America reported this chronicle about Senator Lott when it was before their very eyes. If they had just read it, they would have known almost all of this a year ago. Even now - if they'll read it - they're learn even more.
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