Give Racists Enough Rope — They'll Hang Themselves
[Africana.com, 12 December 2002]
By RICHARD MORGAN
Trent Lott has a dream: that white children and black children can one day live in a world where they will be judged not by the content of their character but by the color of their skin.
Lott, set to take over leadership of the Senate in the new Republican majority, painted himself as a racist last week.
At a centennial birthday party for South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 under a "Dixiecrat" ticket that defended segregation, Lott proudly noted that his state of Mississippi voted for Thurmond and added that, "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Problems, one can only assume, like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the integration of the Armed Forces, Brown v. Board of Education, Jackie Robinson's destruction of the color barrier in sports, the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, the creation of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the presidential campaigns in the 1980s of Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In Lott's nightmarish alternative history, Tuskegee would have been just another medical experiment, Rosa Parks would have been just another bus rider, and Rodney King would have been just another L.A. motorist guilty of Driving While Black.
Since that gaffe, Kweisi Mfume, a former member of the House of Representatives and current NAACP president, has joined Reverend Jackson and other black leaders in calling for Lott to resign his leadership post.
But why should Trent Lott step down just because he said something that appeared to back segregation? He shouldn't. Here's why:
If Lott steps down, his racist comment becomes something that starts and ends with only Lott. It will be just like when Gingrich was swept out of the picture in the '90s to help Republicans convince America that they weren't all rich white racist men looking for tax breaks and the end of public social services like education and healthcare. Such apparent victories are only one move in an ongoing shell game of apathy and bigotry.
Take for example the fact that, throughout the past decade, Republicans have called for the extermination of the US Department of Education. Getting rid of Gingrich didn't stop that. While the idea isn't part of the national platform anymore, it's still part of the agendas of state Republican parties.
If blacks and Democrats make this mistake all about Lott, they miss the larger picture. This is not about Lott. This is about white boys who miss Stepin Fetchit. This is about how the Party of Lincoln hates the fact that he not only defeated the Confederacy, but freed the slaves as well.
Let Lott stay. It's obvious that the confidence Republicans should rightly be feeling after the midterm election victories has been perverted into arrogance. But what's worse is that there's an innocence to this arrogance. Lott has apologized by saying he didn't realize that endorsing the presidency of a segregationist could have been interpreted as racially offensive. Think about what that means if we believe him.
A cabbie not stopping for a black man waiting in the rain is racially offensive. Anti-drug public service announcements on television that feature only black children are racially offensive. Daydreaming of a segregated society isn't just offensive. It's not as if black folks crinkled their noses, rolled their eyes and thought, "Oh Lord. There goes Lott again." Longing for segregation conjures up the most wretched aspects of our history. Who cares about white-and-black water fountains when there was the whole world of lynching, rape, beating, and general violation of every imaginable human dignity? That's what Lott was talking about. And maybe that's what Lott really wants. But, of course, he didn't realize it.
If there's any silver lining to the Republicans gaining power in Congress, it's this: the more Republicans brag about their victories and swagger through the halls of Washington, the more they'll reveal their true selves. Blacks and Democrats want to teach Republicans a lesson in an ironically Republican way: capital punishment. Kill Lott's political power and showcase it as a deterrent to future racism. But maybe the harshest lesson would be to condemn Republicans to live with themselves. Let Lott stay. And let other Republicans speak their mind just as freely.
Lott may indeed step down and leave the spotlight. But the only message that sends to other Republicans is that they need to pile a few more layers of media savvy over their true thoughts and feelings. They need to show up to a few more inner-city schools and read books to a few more black schoolchildren in front of the TV cameras. They need to start watching The Hughleys and start eating fried chicken — and make references to them when they do the Sunday morning talkshow circuit. All Lott's abdication would do is stigmatize racism in a way that just makes racists better at covering their tracks.
Forcing Lott to step down will just ensure that he'll be replaced by someone who'll pay much more attention to the things he — I'm just guessing that any replacement leader for the Republicans just might be a man — will say. He'll have some black aide at his side at all times so he can nudge him with his elbow, lean in and say, "I think I'm going to propose changing our national pastime from baseball to basketball. More blacks play basketball and I need black votes. But I wanted to run it by you first. I mean, that wouldn't be racially offensive, would it, Stepin?"
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