I was writing at Starbucks the other day when a friend stopped by my table to shoot the shit about Trent Lott. We were laughing cynically about the way many Republican leaders have expressed outrage over his now infamous remarks but have stopped short of supporting the new Senate majority leader's ouster.
"The Republicans just don't want to lose the racist vote and they don't want to admit how important it is to their success," my friend said.
My friend left and I resumed staring at my monitor screen when a stranger suddenly appeared in my face.
"You know how you were talking about racism and the Republicans?" he barked, not waiting for a reply. "Well you need to understand that there are racists in both parties."
"Granted," I said.
"Trent Lott is no worse than Cynthia McKinney," he went on. "She hates Jews. I mean, why is Lott's statement any worse?"
"I don't know about that," I said. "I know she's anti-Zionist, but I doubt you could call her explicitly anti-Semitic."
The guy got red in the face and repeated his claim that McKinney is more of a bigot than Lott three times. I decided to remain silent because, as another friend sitting nearby remarked, "If someone repeats the same statement three times you know he's not interested in hearing you."
The comparison of McKinney and Lott is repeated fairly often by those who want to forgive Lott. Of course, they seem to forget that McKinney was ousted. Nor does it occur to them that Lott's nostalgic reverie for dem glory days of segregation has no analogy in McKinney. I don't recall her ever waxing nostalgic for Jewish ghettoes and official discrimination against Jews.
It is delicious to see a politician screw up by telling the truth about himself, as Lott did in his sentimental farewell to retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott has repeatedly apologized for saying that America would have been a better place if Thurmond had won in 1948 when he ran for president as a third-party segregationist.
But the more he has apologized, the more scrutiny he has invited. And the more he is scrutinized, the more apparent it becomes that the only thing that has changed is that he's not as overt about his racism. Back home in Mississippi and throughout the South he is regularly shaking hands with racists and winking, doing them many well-documented favors. Everyone knows it's not cool to be overtly racist anymore, but, hell, we ain't 'bout to lose votes over a little thang like racism.
We have an excellent example of the same kind of thinking here in our own state. There is no reasonable argument for reinstating the Georgia flag's Confederate emblem. That flag was adopted in 1956 as a specific protest against federally mandated desegregation. No matter what kind of bullshit excuses people produce for wanting the Confederate flag re-imposed, the fact is that it landed there as a racist gesture. It had nothing to do with any aspect of our heritage other than the one that demeaned black people.
Well, Republican leaders like Sonny Perdue, in granting the possibility of reinstating the old flag during the recent election, obviously were courting the racist vote. Proposing a referendum on the subject is like proposing that if enough people are hateful, it's OK to be hateful. They forget that the Constitution recognizes the tyranny of majorities and guarantees protection of minorities regardless of a bigoted consensus cobbled out of Tobacco Road trailer parks and Alpharetta mini-mansions.
Meanwhile, as the Lott debacle unfolded with increasing surrealism that included his confessional appearance on BET, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a challenge to a Virginia law that outlaws the KKK-style burning of crosses. I won't get into the troubling question of whether the law is an abridgement of First Amendment rights. I mention it only to demonstrate how alive racism is in our country. Interestingly, the very conservative and black Justice Clarence Thomas delivered an impassioned speech in favor of the Virginia statute even though one normally expects him to read First Amendment law in the strictest way.
It seems to me that Thomas' emotional speech points to what my combatant at Starbucks, the folks who want to overlook Lott's statements and defenders of the flag of '56 forget. People were routinely murdered, lives were ruined, opportunity was consistently denied during the years before desegregation. As New York Times essayist Robin Toner recently wrote, more than half of all Americans weren't alive in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
For them -- black and white alike -- Trent Lott's nostalgia is for a bloody time they know only as an abstraction in a history textbook. Racism still runs America. The effort to sanitize the past, like pretending the flag of '56 means something other than it does, only contributes to the problem. If we cannot actively recant our racist past and quit exploiting ongoing, covert racism, how can we possibly expect to free ourselves of it? Do we want to?