America changes the rules on racism

Financial Times, Dec. 15, 2002 (Commentary)
By Joshua Micah Marshall

Most political scandals begin when some damning fact suddenly becomes known to the public. America is now in the midst of a different, more significant kind of scandal – one in which most of the facts have been known for years.

Little less than two weeks ago, Trent Lott, incoming Senate majority leader, was toasting retiring Senator Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party. Decades ago Mr Thurmond was an arch-segregationist. In 1948 he had mounted a single-issue presidential campaign aimed at preserving the American version of apartheid that then prevailed in the southern states. He later renounced those positions and in recent years has become better known for his uncanny longevity.

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Mr Lott stunned the assembled guests by telling them that he was proud that his own state of Mississippi was one of only four to have voted for Mr Thurmond back in 1948 and that “if the rest of the country had . . . followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems”. The implication of Mr Lott’s remarks were hard to miss: things would be better today if blacks were still second-class citizens with few if any civil and political rights.

By late last week, even as he protested that he had not meant to say what his words seemed to imply, Mr Lott’s political future was in doubt. But what was most remarkable about the scandal enveloping him was how long it took before the press took much notice of it. For days the story was kept alive only by a few online journals of opinion and independent political websites (one of which is run by the author), which hammered away at Mr Lott’s remark and recalled his past flirtations with the crypto-racist and not-so-crypto-racist right.

The establishment press just did not seem to get it. But the blind spot was not ideological. It was more a wilful amnesia to the veiled politics of race hatred and resentment that still operates in many parts of the US South – and other parts of the country.

The modern Republican party had its roots in the white backlash against the civil rights revolution in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Over time, a broader Southern Republican politics was created, one that wove in tax-cutting, hands-off government, cultural conservatism, bellicose foreign policy and opposition to abortion. But at the foundation, the hard-edged politics of racial animus remains – an embarrassment to some politicians but an important asset to others.

Now and again a politician would get called out for pandering too conspicuously to racist sentiment. Mr Lott got into a bit of trouble in 1998 when it was revealed he had a long-standing relationship with a white supremacist organisation called the Council of Conservative Citizens. But such scrapes happened too seldom to cause a politician such as Mr Lott any lasting damage so long as the flirtations were sufficiently coded or veiled.

Last week something changed. After people began mulling over what Mr Lott had said, they looked again at his history of flirtations with racist politics – this time in a harsher light. In the early 1960s he spearheaded the campaign to preserve his college fraternity’s ban on black members. He began his political career working for one of the country’s most virulent segregationist politicians. In 1981 he filed a legal brief in support of special tax privileges for religious schools that practise racial discrimination. He also granted an interview to a crypto-racist magazine called The Southern Partisan. Most of this was known a month ago but somehow did not matter. Now it seems to matter a great deal.

In the near term, the Lott debacle is bad news for Republicans and good news for their Democratic rivals. But the implications go beyond partisan lines. Amid all the antics and frenzy of a burgeoning political scandal, America is undergoing one of those decisive moments when the rules of the political game suddenly change.

Mr Lott may have let his mouth get the better of him while celebrating an old friend. But what is really dragging him down is his longer history of cavorting with the racist right. And in that he is not alone. Other present and former senators have also given interviews to the same crypto-racist magazine. And one of those former senators, John Ashcroft, is now attorney-general.

Having applied those new standards to Mr Lott it will be difficult not to apply it to others. The ramifications will ripple far into the future. And the country will be better for it.

The writer is contributing writer for The Washington Monthly, and runs, an independent web log

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