Since Sen. Trent Lott achieved the anatomical triumph of shoving his foot in his mouth while his head was already in an unlit nether region, there have been hundreds of editorials, TV testimonials and newspaper articles asserting that Republicans use doublespeak to simultaneously appeal to racists and the public.
Words like "states' rights," "welfare queens" and the 1988 Willie Horton ad allegedly add up to a Republican stealth campaign signaling to racists and would-be segregationists that the GOP doesn't really believe in tolerance and inclusion.
"The scandal surrounding Trent Lott," writes historian Joseph Crespino in a typical bit of analysis in The New York Times, "is not about a poor choice of words at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond. It's about the political choices Republicans made in the 1960s to `go hunting where the ducks are' -code language for winning over white segregationists who abandoned the Democratic Party in the South. It's about continuing to benefit from racial prejudice through subtle and not-so-subtle sound bites that play to the Republican Party's far-right base."
Now, I think Lott must step down as Senate majority leader, and I was among the first conservatives to publicly rebuke him for his idiotic comments. And, yes, I suppose I must concede that Southern Republicans have, from time to time, used rhetoric that's more politically attractive to racists than the rhetoric used by the Democratic Party.
But I'm a bit squeamish about accepting the assertion by liberals and Democrats that pretty much everything Republicans have said about race in the last 40 years was an appeal to racists.
For example, I'm a huge believer in states' rights, if by states' rights you mean the legal underpinning for federalism. But if by "states' rights" you mean segregation, lynching and Jim Crow, then I'm against states' rights. If you want to tell me that "states' rights" is code in the South for racism, I will take your word for it. But if you tell me that the concept of federalism is racist, I will say you're too dumb to be a spell-checker at an M&M factory.
Stan Tiner, the executive editor for the Biloxi, Miss., Sun Herald, writes that in his state, "`Conservative' was long a code word for racism, hatred and bigotry." I take Tiner at his word. But that doesn't mean everyone who calls himself a conservative is a bigot.
But that is, in fact, exactly what Jesse Jackson and similar activists would have people believe. "In South Africa," Jesse Jackson once said, "we call it apartheid. In Nazi Germany, we'd call it fascism. Here in the United States, we call it conservatism."
Of course, this is a hideously deceitful thing to say. But there's a purpose behind it. Many on the left are quick to throw around the charge of racism, sexism or homophobia as a way to delegitimize anyone who disagrees with them. Hence if you don't toe the liberal line on affirmative action you're racist or sexist. Or if you don't favor gay marriage, you're an anti-gay bigot.
Liberals, after all, have their own code words too. When they talk about "equal opportunity," they often mean special treatment for preferred minorities. When they talk about the "civil rights community" they mean a particular subset of hyperliberal black activists. When they say a politician is "hostile" to "black issues" that could mean anything from being against a federal holiday for Martin Luther King's birthday to opposition to reparations for slavery.
In other words, "racist" is often defined as "disagreeing with racial liberals." That's why Lott's promise Monday on the BET cable channel that he will be "more sensitive" to black issues is code for doing what the NAACP tells him to.
Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson has already announced that Lott can prove he's a "rehabilitated" racist "by pushing to raise the minimum wage, increase the stock of affordable housing, providing a prescription drug benefit to seniors and securing healthcare for the 44 million Americans who don't have it."
This is outrageous. And conservatives must draw the line between opposing Lott's moronic comments without conceding the idea that opposition to liberal policies is racist. In his BET interview, Lott declared -suddenly -that he "absolutely" embraces affirmative action "across the board." As Andrew Sullivan wrote on his Web site, "He is the worst of all possible worlds: once a devotee of the old racism; now an enthusiast for the new racism."
Conservatives do, in fact, have a thoroughly non-racist agenda. Many conservatives champion a strict notion of a color-blind society, which was, coincidentally, the moral centerpiece of Martin Luther King's vision. Alas, colorblindness is routinely dismissed as a racist code word by activists, college administrators and the journalists who love them. Apparently Trent Lott now thinks so, too.