During Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration, Sen. Trent Lott casually remarked that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had won his third-party bid for the presidency in 1948. Just one thing: Thurmond ran as a segregationist.
For that, the pundits have bloodied Sen. Lot. Rightly so. It does not matter that Lott was simply paying homage to his colleague and friend. Our senators are elected to represent our popular will. That means popular culture is power. The popular culture abhors remarks that have even the slightest hint of racism. If our elected representatives don't get that, then they fail to empathize with voters and they shortchange their constituencies.
For the past 30 years, this failure has been endemic of the Republican Party. The GOP failed to support minority voting rights, civil-rights initiatives and affirmative action (which I oppose) and to facilitate any appreciable ethnic diversity within its party. As a result, blacks do not feel a part of the Republican Party.
In fact, when you ask black Americans what the Republican Party stands for, many will respond that the Republicans stand for opposing affirmative action and racial quotas. Ironically, affirmative action and quotas are not core issues for the party. The party is most heavily invested in lowering taxes, tort reform and increasing states rights.
The major implication is that a large number of black Americans do not like or trust the Republican Party. So when a senior member of the Republican Party makes a comment as insensitive as Lott's, it reinforces all of the negative stereotypes about the GOP as an old, Southern boys network that simply does not understand the issues that are of chief concern to black voters.
It is instructive that during an interview on Black Entertainment Television, Sen. Lott discussed how he grew up in a poor family of "very meager means" in a racially polarized town. If the Republicans want to broaden their support amongst American blacks, they need to distance themselves from people of "that time and place." That is, people who have no genuine ability to empathize with what it means to be a minority in this country.
For this reason, Sen. Lott should be removed as Senate majority leader. This would send an unmistakable message that people from the time and place that birthed Mr. Lott, are no longer desired as members of the Republican Party.
Ironically, the publicity generated form Mr. Lott's remarks could end up helping the Republican Party insofar as it will further focus the party on issues that will help minorities, while generating more press coverage than ever for such outreach.
A good start might be a public apology for Lott's remarks that acknowledges the party's insensitivity toward blacks over the past 35 years. With a pledge to change, a dedicated grassroots effort to build bridges on the local level and a strong push to support black candidates for office, the party can open up forums for a genuine give and take between the Republican Party and black voters.
This process will be sloppy at first, but it will provide a stage for the GOP to adequately address issues of importance to African-Americans, namely racism and violence.
Without a forum with which to discuss these concerns, the Republicans will have trouble remaining a long-term, stable governing body.