BET interview dooms Lott

Posted: Dec 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Sen. Trent Lott's appearance on Black Entertainment Television Monday night should seal his fate as the Republican majority leader. As if he weren't already in deep trouble for seemingly pro-segregation remarks he made two weeks ago, Lott managed to give the wrong answers to almost every question posed concerning the major civil rights issues of the last four decades. Worse, he didn't seem to have a clue that he was digging himself deeper into a hole. His only interest was saving his job, and he seemed willing to say almost anything if he thought it would accomplish that goal. BET host Ed Gordon asked Lott to explain several of his votes on civil rights bills over the years. On only one did he give the right answer. Lott said that if he had it to do over again, he would vote for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday bill. But his explanation for why he voted wrong in 1983 wasn't convincing. "I'm not sure we in America -- certainly not white America and the people in the South -- fully understood who this man was; the impact he was having on the fabric of society," Lott explained. Sorry, Senator, that statement reflects willful ignorance. No one who lived through the civil rights era can fail to appreciate the social transformation that occurred through the efforts of Rev. King and other civil rights leaders. Sen. Lott's problem is not that he didn't understand what Rev. King was fighting for, but that, at the time, he was on the other side. Which brings us to Lott's next misstep. In explaining why he voted against the 1982 Voting Rights Act Amendments, Lott claimed that he wasn't opposed to the legislation but thought it should apply not only to Mississippi and other Deep South states but to the entire nation. At best, this explanation is disingenuous. What Lott was referring to were certain sections of the original 1965 Voting Rights Act that triggered unusually tough measures, including requiring some jurisdictions to submit changes in voting laws or procedures to the federal government for "pre-clearance" before they could take effect. These temporary provisions -- which were up for renewal for the third time in 1982 -- applied only to certain states, including Lott's own Mississippi, because these jurisdictions had a proven record not only of discriminating but of thwarting every effort to extend voting rights to blacks by constantly changing the rules of the game. Mississippi deserved harsh treatment because it had been especially egregious in denying blacks their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. In 1964, less than 7 percent of blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi. Other states that hadn't discriminated against blacks didn't deserve the draconian treatment warranted against those that had, so Lott's proposal was both irrelevant and unfair. There was a principled argument Lott could have made against the 1982 Voting Rights Act Amendments, but he seemed oblivious to it. The problem with the 1982 legislation was that a key provision fundamentally changed the purpose of the original 1965 Act from supporting equal access to the polling booth for all persons, regardless of race, to attempting to guarantee proportional racial representation among elected officials. The debate on the 1982 Amendments was essentially whether civil rights legislation should guarantee equal opportunity or equal results. This has been
the central debate in civil rights for more than a quarter century, with those who support equal opportunity favoring strict non-discrimination on the basis of race or color, and those who support equal results insisting on racial quotas and racial double standards that favor minorities. Perhaps Lott's most confusing answer during his BET interview came when he was asked his position on affirmative action. "I'm for that," he declared, to an obviously surprised Gordon. "I'm for affirmative action and I've practiced it," he said, with an elliptical aside about not getting into "arguments about timetables and quotas." He left the impression that he favored existing affirmative action programs in colleges and universities that grant racial preferences to minority applicants. It was clear from his answer that Lott was incapable of giving a principled defense of colorblind equal opportunity, so he simply jumped on the affirmative action bandwagon. Lott was on the wrong side of the civil rights divide in the 1960s, and he now appears willing to switch to the wrong side of the current debate over racial preferences to keep his job as majority leader. His Republican colleagues can display more principle than Lott has by choosing someone else to lead them.