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
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
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
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.