Politics & Policy

The Cancer of Race

The lessons of the Lott affair.

SACRAMENTO, CAL. — I’ll bet that Senator Trent Lott never wants to attend another birthday party in his life. In less than three weeks, Lott went from being the next Senate Majority Leader to just one of 100 United States senators. Being a U.S. senator is not too shabby of a perch from which to gaze at the world, of course, but it is a far cry from being the guy who can dispense political pork, at will, and be the primary deal-cutter in one of the world’s most-powerful clubs.

According to the rules of the Senate Republican Conference, Lott would have automatically become Senate Majority Leader on January 7, 2003. When he announced on December 20, 2002 that he would step aside and allow a new election to be held for the position, Lott confirmed just how contentious the issue of race remains in American life.

Race in America is like a blister that never heals — always raw, annoying, sensitive to the touch, and vulnerable to becoming inflamed at the slightest provocation. In his political innocence — of that I am genuinely convinced — Lott unwittingly laid bare the perpetual wound of race.

In so doing, he not only exposed himself to a level of condemnation that threatened his political career, he also created an opening for race to be the source that divides the American people for years to come. Or, if addressed honestly and openly, Lott may have provided the American people with an opportunity to put salve on a nagging sore.

I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.

Taken by themselves, those words amount to harmless political rhetoric. Lott did not call black people a derogatory name, express hate or bigotry against them, or even expressly state that his words were related to race. There is nothing in his comments that others don’t say often about nearly every political candidate who has run for office, and lost.

It is only when we put those words in the context of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 candidacy for president that they assume significance. And, even then, we are left to wonder what Lott truly meant by “all these problems?” Certainly, a reasonable inference can be drawn — and I hasten to add that I have drawn such an inference — that Lott was referring to the philosophy held by Thurmond about race, in general, and black people in particular. Inferentially, Lott seemed to be endorsing racial segregation imposed and enforced by the government.

With those words, Lott provided the racialists of America — those who believe that “race matters,” that race is what defines us, and that America is an “institutionally racist society” — with an opportunity to put the issue of “race” on the front burner of American life.

Unfortunately, and not unpredictably, the Lott issue rapidly morphed into the typically ugly and inflammatory kind of discussion America has about race whenever it has such a conversation. Lott enabled the racialists to do what they do best: Attack the motives of others with whom they disagree, exploit race for political gain, and demonize all Republicans as mouth-foaming, pickup-driving bigots.

Former Texas governor Ann Richards said on Larry King Live that Republicans need to take sensitivity-training seminars to teach themselves how to deal with minorities. I have been a Republican since 1969, and I would take a Biblical oath that Republicans are no more or less capable of discussing race issues than Democrats. Perhaps more timid, but certainly no less “sensitive.” As a Republican, the only sensitivity training I need is to equip me to remain civil when interacting with half-witted people who think I need “sensitivity training” to be able to talk about race.

And, then, America’s “first black president,” according to novelist Toni Morrison, took the Lott controversy to a new level of demagoguery. Bill Clinton said, “How can they jump on him when they’re out there repressing, trying to run black voters away from the polls and running under the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina? I mean, look at their whole record. He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads every day.’’

Race is a moral dilemma for America; however, when confronted with issues of morality, I would not prescribe the counsel of Bill Clinton to anyone.

Have they no sense of shame or concern about the effect that such irresponsible commentary can have in our nation? Have they no concern about the consequences of dividing and polarizing the American people along lines of race? It is easy enough to relapse into patterns of resentment and anger about race without having high-profile individuals provoke us into doing so.

For over 40 years, I have been struggling in my own way to breathe life into America’s vision to be a nation where the color of one’s skin and the fact of one’s ancestry are of no consequence. I now realize, because of the disclosures about his past, that for most of those 40 years, Senator Lott and I have been at odds with the other’s vision of what America should be.

In 1959, as a junior in college, I pledged a fraternity that had never had a nonwhite member. My fraternity brothers and I believed devoutly in the principle of not letting our “race” define who we were or judging each other based on the sum of our racial parts. If the brothers of Trent Lott’s fraternity had sought to pledge me instead of those of Delta Phi Omega, it would have been a future United States senator who would have “blackballed” me from becoming a member.

In 1962, when my college sweetheart and I decided to exercise one of the most fundamental freedoms that Western democracy can offer — the right to marry the person of one’s choice — Lott embraced an ideology that regarded our marriage as “immoral.” As late as the mid-1990s, Lott’s footprints were on the lawn leading to Bob Jones University, an institution that as late as 1998 opposed “interracial” dating.

In his appearance at Black Entertainment Television, “Lott Apologia version 4.0,” Lott became a tragic and pitiable figure pleading to a special interest for their support to allow him to become leader of the Senate. He was reduced to negotiating the terms of his leadership, and he cut a very bad deal for himself, for the Republican party, and for the country. Once again, in matters involving race, politics triumphed over principle.

I am delighted that Lott was forced to remove himself from consideration as Senate Majority Leader. But, it is truly a measure of our misplaced priorities and values when a statement made at a birthday party that might be interpreted as an endorsement of racial segregation can overwhelm issues of war and peace. For making such a statement, one gets the political death penalty. But, for having sexual liaisons in the Oval Office — and lying about it — one gets invited to give speeches all around the globe and receive speaking fees in excess of $100,000 per engagement.

By embracing race preferences, Lott essentially betrayed those of us who have placed our careers, sometimes our very lives, on the line in defense of a principle that we believe defines what America was meant to be: a place where every person will be treated with dignity and as an equal by his or her government. Lott essentially said that Justice Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, Tom Sowell, Walter Williams, Deroy Murdock, Larry Elder, and I deserve the abuse we have received from our fellow Americans who are “black” because of our stance in opposition to race preferences. He embraced the race ideology of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP, and rejected that of Abigail Thernstrom, David Horowitz, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Roger Clegg, and Ed Blum. In effect, he cast his political fortunes with those who choose to define America as it once was, instead of with those who want to make America what it was meant to be.

Tragically, the lesson we learn from the story of Lott is that there are so many others in all ranks of our nation’s leadership who constantly make the same short-term choice as Lott in the name of political expediency and “minority outreach.” They place politics above principle for the same reason as Lott. The only difference is that they never had a racist past to surface and cloud the sincerity of their current motives. The long-term damage they do to America — and all people of the nation — is no less. Racism, whether imposed by the government in the form of segregationist policies, or countenanced by those of good intentions who look the other way when the goal is the pursuit of “diversity,” is still racism.

There will be those who will try to portray the words of Senator Lott as being reflective of the racial sentiments of the entire Republican party. Ironically, many of them are among the first to make allegations of “profiling” when they are judged according to the actions of others. The Republican party is not responsible for the utterances of Senator Lott anymore than the Democratic party bears responsibility for the actions of Clinton. If, by such perversion of logic, all Republicans are “racists” because one of their leaders made a statement that some construe as racist, then all Democrats are adulterers and liars because of the actions of one of their leaders. And, as they say, “action speaks louder than words.”

If skeletons can be found in Republican closets about race — and I am certain they can — Democrats should be careful not to urge scavenger hunts in theirs, because they are not as pure as the “driven snow” either. In the final analysis, no one benefits from name-calling and efforts to see who has been the most “insensitive” about race in America. One thing that the saga of Lott makes demonstrably clear is this: The race issue is no longer about overcoming oppression and realizing the promise of equal treatment; it is about “sensitivity” and saying something, even if inadvertent, that may cause feelings to be hurt.

To get our nation beyond this point will require moral leadership that is currently lacking on the national stage in either of our two major political parties. While one party largely exploits race, the other runs from it. The three weeks that America essentially wasted on an issue that had no effect on the life of any citizen are illustrative of how race can overshadow issues of war and peace, the economy, and a host of other matters of far greater consequence than the color of my skin or who my ancestors were.

It is my fervent prayer that President Bush will realize the moral imperative to give proper focus to the issue of race. The nation yearns for that leadership and history will judge him by his actions or his inactions, whichever the case may be. To begin, he needs to make clear that “diversity” should not be an excuse to discriminate.

As the federal government said in its amicus filed in Brown vs. Board of Education,

Racial discriminations imposed by law, or having the sanction or support of government, inevitably tend to undermine the foundations of a society dedicated to freedom, justice, and equality. The proposition that all men are created equal is not mere rhetoric. It implies a rule of law — an indispensable condition to a civilized society — under which all men stand equal and alike in the rights and opportunities secured to them by their government.

Under the Constitution, every agency of government, national and local, legislative, executive, and judicial, must treat each of our people as an American, and not as some member of a particular group classified on the basis of race or some other constitutional irrelevancy. The color of a man’s skin — like his religious beliefs, or his political attachments, or the country from which he or his ancestors came to the United States — does not diminish or alter his legal status or constitutional rights. “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” [citing Justice John Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson]

If that was good for America in 1954, President Bush, why is it not equally as good now, when, in nearly every corner of American life, we breathe the fresh air of equality? If we can defend our way of life abroad and chase through caves looking for terrorists who seek to destroy it, why can we not muster the political courage to defend in court the culture of equality envisioned in our Declaration of Independence?

Let us not put ointment on the wound of race, let us cut it out of the body politic like the cancer that it is. That will require deregulating race, getting the government out of the race business altogether, not asking American citizens the odious question about their ancestry, because it should be no more relevant to the government than one’s religion — and that question is forbidden. “The Racial Privacy Initiative,” to be soon considered by the voters of California, is a critical step in that direction. The president could also issue an Executive Order eliminating those silly little race boxes from government forms; and he could help to eliminate the race question from the Census.

America does not need another generation of “racial healing” programs. America needs to consign race to the ash heap of history where it rightfully belongs.

— Ward Connerly is founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute.


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