Not Fit to Lead
December 13, 2002
By John McWhorter
It's not that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has "hurt" anyone by crowing that if Strom Thurmond had become president in 1948 "We wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." If we African Americans claim to be a strong people, then one man embracing a segregationist campaign 54 years in the past cannot send us into therapy.
But Mr. Lott's statement is extremely hurtful to blacks nevertheless. So much so that I, though well aware that sniffing out people's "racism" is usually more histrionic than proactive, feel strongly that the Republicans, black Americans and our country would be better off without Mr. Lott as a majority leader.
Black America's problem today is less racism than lack of effective political representation. And much of this is due to voting almost exclusively for Democrats in every election. Democrats have no reason to put themselves out for voters whose allegiance is guaranteed. Meanwhile, many Republicans in Congress are sincerely interested in helping blacks, but, as some have told me, find it hard to put us at the top of their agenda if none of us will vote for them. That's not racism, it's real life.
Most black Americans sense pulling the lever for Republicans is a "disloyal" act, and playing a large part in this is a sense that the Republican Party is riddled with bigots. Few myths exert as powerful an influence over blacks of all education levels as the idea that there is a racist "backlash" eternally on the horizon.
Sen. Lott's comment is almost ideally designed to reinforce this idea, especially in our Internet age. We can be sure that as the second semester begins in universities across the country next month, professors will be referring to Mr. Lott's comment as evidence that "America remains a deeply racist country."
In our moment, what would render this episode less useful to these indoctrinators is his demotion by the Congressional body. In his apologies over the past week, Mr. Lott seems to see Strom Thurmond's segregationist agitation as a footnote in a noble life of service, the old man having merely dabbled in a now "discarded" policy in his salad days (i.e. pushing 50). But that's Mr. Lott's quirk: For most of us, Mr. Thurmond's embrace of Jim Crow was the iconic keystone of an otherwise undistinguished career.
As Mr. Lott would understand regarding, say, the desire of many Southerners to preserve Confederate state flags, symbols matter. Any symbol that plays to the gut and encourages black America to repeat its 2000 voting pattern hurts the race, in preserving its political powerlessness. And sheer self-interest requires Republicans to attend to this -- anything that helps eat away at the backlash myth spells more votes for their party.
Of course really, whether Mr. Lott is a "racist" is beside the point. Even if he were, he would have to be brain-dead to stand up and say that the U.S. would be better off segregated. I cannot believe that as experienced a public figure as Mr. Lott would be capable of such a thing, even as a gaffe; even in his dotage, Mr. Thurmond would toe the line here. So let's take Mr. Lott at his word that he was referring to Mr. Thurmond's positions on defense, law enforcement, and economic development.
But the fact remains that Mr. Thurmond would not have mounted that campaign on the basis of his rather ordinary convictions in these areas. What got him up on the hustings in 1948 was indignant dismay at racial mixture. Claims that Mr. Lott would prefer a segregated America are overheated and unprovable. But what his comment shows is that in the end, the civil rights victories are not very important in his scheme of things. And his speeches for the antediluvian racists of the Council of Conservative Citizens group only make this clearer. And in that, our sense of offense goes beyond the paranoid.
When the balance of power in our government is tipped so sharply in Republicans' favor, the Senate majority leader will be one of our nation's half-dozen most influential people in the lawmaking process. A black person is not being melodramatic to wonder how high his concerns will rank for a man who finds Mr. Thurmond's obscure views on defense a more resonant memory than his ardent espousal of a racist caste system.
It's 2057 and Osama bin Laden turns 100 in an American prison. An aging Senate majority leader chuckles in a public address about what a cool fella ol' Osama was after 9/11. Upon questioning, he insists that he was referring to "other things," such as bin Laden's religious fervor and his giving wayward youth a sense of direction. There would be no question of "forgiveness" and "moving on." Nor can there be here.
Sen. Lott did not just "slip up" last Thursday -- he showed his hand. And now that you have, Sen. Lott, please step down.
Mr. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
©2002 Wall Street Journal
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