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Asian Week

Lott, Landrieu, and the Politics of Race
By Phil Nash
December 9, 2002

Last week, at a 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) that was broadcast nationally on C-SPAN, Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), the next Senate Majority Leader, said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president [in 1948], we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Thurmond, who at the time was a Democrat and the governor of South Carolina, was running for president on the breakaway Dixiecrat Party line. While Democrat Harry Truman ultimately beat Republican Thomas Dewey, Thurmond carried South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Thurmond was quoted as saying during the campaign, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."

Attempting to sound neutral, his party's platform said, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." "Racial integrity," like "freedom of association," became code words for keeping the races separate so that whites could maintain their unfair control of power and resources. Even today, whenever racial minorities or women try to remove the lingering unfair privileges of white men, they are accused of being "politically correct." This term, which I find repugnant because there is no "correct" way of thinking in a democracy, is yet another smoke screen for people who prefer to not address the unfairness and inequalities that have plagued and which continue to plague our society.

To understand the full import of Sen. Lott's comments, remember that before the Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954, whites had all the privileges and colored people had nothing. Separate and inferior schools, jobs, housing, restrooms, water fountains, and swimming pools for coloreds were the norm. White Supremacy was written into our law books, and interracial marriage was not accepted nationwide until 1967. Lynching and cross burning were the tools used by the Ku Klux Klan and other White Supremacist groups to send a message to colored men who tried to date white women or move into white neighborhoods.

While Senator Lott has since apologized for his remark and Senator Thurmond himself spent the last few years hiring African American staff and pushing for some positions supported by his African American constituents, this episode draws aside the curtain and exposes the sordid racism that continues to haunt our fragile democracy.

Thomas Kuhn, the author of "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," once remarked that discredited old theories don't die out until their proponents do. Sen. Lott's remark would lead one to believe that he and Sen. Thurmond still believe, in their heart of hearts, that whites are a superior group of people. Taking it a step further, they continue to be openly supportive of the exclusion of women from membership in enclaves of power such as the Augusta National Golf Club. This club, like the many other places where men can make decisions affecting government and industry without women present, contributes to the unfair exclusion of women from the decision-making levels of our society. It leads to a "glass ceiling" through which women cannot go because hiring for the highest level jobs is a subjective process that goes beyond credentials and work experience.

Everyone should be free to associate with anyone they want. Senators Lott and Thurmond should be free to think whatever they want. But when that "freedom of association" is a covert way of saying, "I want to keep unfair privileges and access to resources for myself and people who look like me," then this form of unfairness has to end.

Meanwhile, the Democrats fared no better in discussions of race last week. While they did win an election in Louisiana, they did it in a way that perpetuates the racial polarization of our society. Incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu was at odds with some of the leaders of the state's African American community, and is widely viewed as a supporter of conservative social policies and Bush war policies that disproportionately hurt minority communities. As a result, political commentators saw her support within the African American community, which was vital to her re-election prospects, as lukewarm at best. Yet, because the present winner-take-all system does not allow for proportional representation, African Americans had no choice but to back a candidate whose interests do not coincide with many of their community's interests.

The GOP game plan for November 5th was to focus on the war on Iraq and cutting taxes. Landrieu was able to get the focus back on state and local issues by alleging that the Bush Administration was going to undermine Louisiana's sugar farmers. She was only able to focus on getting these conservative whites back into her camp, however, because African Americans in Louisiana, as in the rest of the country, are presumed to be in the Democratic column, so their votes are taken for granted. Catering to the racists in her own party, Sen. Landrieu had members of the Congressional Black Caucus and prominent African American leaders in Louisiana campaign for her in the African American community, but, according to local news reports, she herself stayed away so as not to be seen as being too supportive of African Americans.

This strategy by the Landrieu camp has an effect that is just as bad as the remarks of Sen. Lott, and deserve further discussion by fair-minded-people of all races and political leanings. How can the racism of the white constituents be addressed if we are going to let the most racist of us control the debate? Why must African Americans and other racial minorities in this country continue to have to choose between the lesser of two evils-- the candidate whose policy stances hurt them less?

According to the Center for Voting and Democracy ( ), out of the 41 current well-established democracies in the world, only two (the United States and Canada) do not use a form of proportional or semi-proportional voting systems to elect one of their national legislatures. While we were in the forefront of democracy 200 years ago, we are behind the curve today. If we are to have a democracy where both African Americans and those who fondly recall the days of segregation can each have a fair chance to vote for their vision of America at the ballot box, it is imperative that we move away from winner-take-all elections and toward proportional representation as soon as possible.

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