Southerners are the only Americans to have lost a major war and to have had their cultural configurations torn apart.
In 1948, Sen. Strom Thurmond tapped into the south's identity crisis with his third party bid for the presidency. Running as a "Dixiecrat" segregationist, Thurmond vowed to maintain the uniquely Southern heritage by "stand[ing] for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
During a stump speech in Jackson, Miss., Thurmond declared that "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches." Ultimately, Thurmond captured 39 electoral votes and carried Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina. It was one of the most successful third-party bids in this nation's history.
A lot has changed in this country since the days when Ol' Strom could make viable a run at the presidency by promising to keep "Negroes" from our schools. The shape of racism has now been twisted inward. It's subtler, less acceptable. Instead of donning white sheets and stomping down our streets, racists perpetuate their beliefs with snide remarks and insensitivity.
Case in point: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott recently said that the Unites States would have been better off if Thurmond had actually been elected president in 1948. Lott made the comments during a birthday party celebration for Thurmond, who turned 100 last week. Lott went on to express pride in the fact that his home state of Mississippi supported Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid. "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."
You mean those pesky problems associated with letting Negroes into our schools and churches? That is what Thurmond campaigned against in 1948.
For obvious reasons, Lott's office played down the significance of the senator's remarks, opting merely to issue a curt two-sentence press release: "Sen. Lott's remarks were intended to pay tribute to a remarkable man who led a remarkable life. To read anything more into these comments is wrong." Lott's office issued similar remarks in 1998 when it was reported that Lott appeared before - and praised- the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group dedicated to the separation of the races.
Then, as now, there was scarcely little condemnation amongst Mr. Lott's colleagues. This needs to change. Our Republican leaders cannot keep squinting their eyes to Lott's racial insensitivity. As congressmen, they bear a dual responsibility to represent the nation's conscience and to act as respectable faceplates for the party. By giving Lott a pass on his racist-seeming remarks, they've suggested the worst kind of stereotype: that lurking beneath the Republican party is a private identity that harkens back to a time when blacks were valued only as a cheap source of labor.
Some commentators have suggested that the Republicans use Lott's remarks as an occasion to go on the offensive by pointing out that Democratic senator Robert Byrd, formerly a "Grand Kleagle" with the Ku Klux Klan, recently used the N-word during an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
This will not work.
The Republican Party spent much of the '60s opposing the Democrats on civil rights legislation, affirmative action legislation and race-based quotas. This gives the Democrats the benefit of the doubt on race-related issues. Whereas Sen. Byrd's history will be discarded as the indiscretion of one, Lott's remarks are seen as endemic of a party that has consistently displayed insensitivity to the issues that blacks care about most. The Republicans simply do not have the credibility to go toe to toe with the Democrats on the race issue. They will lose that battle every time.
So far, President Bush has made a considerable attempt to build bridges in the black community. His grassroots support for school vouchers and the diversity of his own cabinet should proclaim to black Americans that they are part of the Republican Party.
But black America's distrust of the Republican Party runs deep. The psychological scars won't just fade away. And whatever gains the president has made (and was poised to make with a GOP-controlled Senate) can be ripped to shreds when just one leading member of the GOP makes remarks as racially insensitive as those offered by Sen. Lott.
That is why the only acceptable response from the GOP should be harsh criticism. Sadly, no such criticism seems forthcoming.
That sound you hear is the GOP once again dropping the ball on the race issue.