Now that Trent Lott has resigned as Senate Republican leader, the firestorm over his casual remark at Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party has clearly become a watershed moment—one that could help define the politics of race relations in America for years to come.
As everyone who hasn't been hiking in the wilderness without a radio knows by now, Lott fondly recalled the South Carolina senator's 1948 run for the White House on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. Proudly pointing out that his home state of Mississippi voted for Thurmond, he added, "If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
No one knows whether, in his heart of hearts, Lott actually regrets desegregation. What became clear in the days that followed was that his comment was not just an isolated instance of someone saying a stupid thing without fully realizing its meaning. He had made a similar statement while campaigning for Thurmond in 1980. He has previously come under fire over his ties to a white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens; his response was to plead ignorance of its racist agenda.
What's more, Lott's initial "apology" for his comment showed remarkably little contrition—or understanding that segregation was not just a "discarded" policy, as he put it, but an immoral and evil one.
It is worth noting that from the start, conservatives helped keep the Lott controversy alive. True, it was Jesse Jackson who initially called attention to Lott's remark, and the left-of-center Salon magazine gave the story extensive coverage. But much of the credit for not letting it die belongs to commentators on the right: the Wall Street Journal editorialists, Andrew Sullivan in his weblog, the National Review's David Frum and Jonah Goldberg, and many others. Only a few prominent conservative pundits, such as Robert Novak and Sean Hannity, tried to circle the wagons and defend the senator as a victim of a politically correct witch-hunt.
One may say that anti-Lott conservatives were driven only by the desire to minimize the political damage to the Republican Party (or even, some charge, to cover up the party's history of pandering to racism). As with Lott, his critics' true motives are known only to themselves. The fact is that the Republican and conservative mainstream has forcefully repudiated racial bigotry. President Bush's Dec. 12 comments on the Lott scandal, while somewhat belated and too accepting of Lott's sham apology, not only reaffirmed that our nation must continue to strive toward true racial equality but unequivocally stated that "every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals."
Does Lott represent a larger problem of Republican race-baiting? There is no denying that in the past 30 years, the Republican Party has benefited from the votes of Southern whites who defected from the Democratic Party because of the Democrats' support for civil rights. (In a ludicrous column on the Lott imbroglio, Ann Coulter points out that "back when they supported segregation, Lott and Thurmond were Democrats" and that the segregationist Dixiecrat Party was a Democratic offshoot; but it's a historical fact that many of its offspring later found a home in the Republican Party.) There is no denying that many Southern Republicans have actively, if cautiously, courted this base—at least with symbolic gestures, such as support for flying the Confederate flag over state capitols.
Yet Republicans and conservatives have also been accused of racism for opposing racial preferences in education and hiring, for seeking to end dependency-promoting welfare programs, or for backing tough law-and-order measures. That's a smear, and an attempt to squelch legitimate debate on important issues on which people of all races hold many different positions.
Let's not forget, either, that Democrats are no strangers to race-baiting for political gain. Remember the campaign ads trying to link George W. Bush for the horrible racist murder of James Byrd because of his opposition to hate-crime laws, or warning that a vote for a Republican would mean that more black churches would burn?
Two wrongs, however, don't make a right. Today, the Republicans say that they support equal justice and equal opportunity for all Americans, a promise that paternalistic race-based liberal policies have failed to fulfill. If they want their dedication to this cause to be taken seriously, flirting with nostalgia for a racist past must become a political kiss of death in the Republican Party.