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Trent Lott Is Not The Problem
January 11, 2003
By Richard Prasad

In all the national hand wringing over the Trent Lott fiasco, the media seems to have centered on one thing, is Trent Lott a racist, or is he not a racist? With all due respect, Trent Lott is not the problem, he is a symptom of all the policies that the Republican party has espoused that pit one race against another, for the last 38 years.

By now we all know the words of Trent Lott at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

"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."

Nobody but the most ardent partisan would try to defend that statement. Yet people still do try to defend that statement, they say that Trent is not a racist, and that he was trying to make an old man happy. I happen to believe that Trent Lott is a racist, his record speaks volumes. He was the keynote speaker for the Council of Conservative Citizens, he voted against the Martin Luther King holiday, he voted against the reauthorization of the Voting Rights act. He has even spoken fondly of Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy.

But Lott's racism is not the point. The point is that the Republican party has used race from 1964 to this day to divide people and win elections. And that's the shame of the Republican party.

It began in 1964 with LBJ's signing of the Ciivil Rights Act, ending legal segregation. LBJ knew the political stakes, but he used the political arm twisting he learned in Congress, and got the bill passed. After he got the bill passed, he said, "We just handed the South to the Republicans." Undoubtedly, there were Republicans that voted for the Civil Rights Act, like Everett Dirksen the Republican Minority Leader from Illinois, but the moderate wing that Dirksen represented is almost extinct. Other than in New England and New York and New Jersey, moderate republicans do not exist.

In 1964, conservative republicans saw an opportunity. Instead of embracing the Civil Rights Act, they saw an issue ripe for exploitation. Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights act, also used code words like "states rights" to appeal to disenfranchised segregationists. Goldwater would maintain that he used the phrase only for ideological reasons, as an argument against the federal government, but anyone living in the South knew what the phrase "states rights" meant. The South did not want the federal government interfering in segregation and slavery before it. The Republican Southern Strategy was born and it worked, of the six states that Goldwater won in 1964, five states were in the South.

In 1968, Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey and the Southern strategy continued and was expanded to include white backlash against the Civil rights movement, and against riots in cities across the country. Nixon's use of the phrases "law and order" and "silent majority" had a not so subtle racial connotation when set against the riots in Newark, NJ and Watts California. The only reason that Nixon did not win the South in 1968 was the candidacy of George Wallace, who ran as a third party candidate, who continued in the segregationist tradition of Strom Thurmond in 1948. Nixon went on to sweep the South in 1972, and the South was becoming more and solidly Republican, and race was one of the most prominent reasons why.

The Republican Southern Strategy took a minor detour in 1976, when the combination of Watergate and favorite son status of Jimmy Carter, led Carter to sweep the South. Even in winning the South, Carter lost a majority of the white vote in the south.

But the Southern strategy was back in full force in 1980, and its leading man was Ronald Reagan.

It was no accident that Reagan started his Presidential campaign in Philadelphia Mississippi. For those of you that don't know Philadelphia Mississippi was the site where Civil Rights workers Goodman Schwerner and Cheney were killed by the Klan in the Freedom Rides in June of 1964. Instead of embracing the Civil Rights movement that many had died for, Reagan repeated the tired mantra of Goldwater and spoke of "states rights." He continued his race baiting with the use of the phrase "welfare queens."

The race baiting continued in 1988, with Bush Sr.'s use of the Willie Horton ad during that Presidential campaign. Willie Horton was a black rapist who was temporarily allowed out of prison under a Massachussetts furlough program. Wille Horton was every racist white person's worst nightmare: an angry, violent black man. And as feverishly as they denied involvement in the Horton ad, the George H.W. Bush campaign hung Horton around Dukakis' neck like a millstone.

Fast forward to the year 2000. George W. Bush, the man who described himself as a unifier, not a divider, used race to propel himself into the Presidency. In the South Carolina primary when Bush needed votes the most, he went to Bob Jones University, the University that didn't allow interracial dating. And who could forget how Katherine Harris disenfranchised innocent black voters by claiming they were convicts, and got them kicked off the voter rolls. That really brought people together didn't it?

Lest you think that the Republicans are through using race as an issue, Sonny Perdue, new Republican governor of Georgia used the Confederate Flag to attract voters to his side. Here's Perdue speaking in 2001:

"You won't catch me trying to change the flag. I led the Senate fight in 1993 to preserve our precious Confederate emblem on the state flag."

Is that the sound of a man that is trying to use race for political gain? Yes, it does.

Even in the wake of the Lott controversy, Republicans continue to put their foot in their mouths. Of Cynthia McKinney, Representative Cass Ballinger of North Carolina said "If I had to listen to her, I probably would have developed a little bit of a segregationist feeling."

Of course he apologized later, but Republican apologies mean little, because their strategies and policies have made bigots feel comfortable with their bigotry.

And now comes the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. And whatever anyone's feelings on affirmative action, this is yet another issue that Republicans have used to exploit white anger against minorities. In June 2003, affirmative action will probably be struck down by the same 5 justices that handed Bush the election. Will Bush side with the plaintiffs or the University of Michigan in this case? Politically, this decision has been made harder coming on the heels of the Lott statement, but in the end, the Bush administration will claim reverse discrimination and dance with the race that brung them to the political majority.

The Democrats are not devoid of racists in their party. But there is a big difference. Democrats, for the most part have stuck by minorities, even when the position is not a politically popular one. Conservative Republicans still refer to themselves as the party of Lincoln, but have turned their backs on minorities for political expediency. That is not only a crime, but a sin.

The only difference is that Lott said out loud what conservative Republicans have been thinking, planning, and carrying out for nearly 40 years.

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