As the Trent Lott imbroglio reveals, race remains radioactive. It is divisive and contentious, the hottest of the hot-button issues. Race roils the public like nothing else.
Historically speaking, that's understandable. This nation has had to struggle with racial dilemma since its inception. The founding fathers conceived the United States of America in the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. They did this in the presence of chattel slavery; the contradiction between the "land of the free" and the home of the slave is a hypocrisy born with the nation.
Since slavery had become essential for the economic health of this new nation, American culture sought to dehumanize enslaved Africans and their progeny. Social structures were erected that enforced racial hierarchy. After de jure slavery ended, Jim Crow laws were imposed that placed strict racial barriers around black Americans' possibilities for another century.
This was the restrictive era that Strom Thurmond sought to extend with his 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign and about which Lott rhapsodized earlier this month.
African-Americans were not fully enfranchised citizens until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When President Lyndon B. Johnson sided with northern liberals to back the landmark civil rights legislation, he famously predicted it would be the end of the Democratic Party in the South. He was right.
Since Johnson's election in 1964, Republicans have won the white vote in each of the nine presidential elections following. The growth of the GOP is clearly correlated to whites' hostility to civil rights efforts. It wouldn't be that far off to attribute the Republican Party's current strength to the power of racial bias.
"Republican strategies have proven extremely effective in attracting millions of white voters in the party fold," wrote Thomas B. Edsall, a Washington Post writer who has authored several books on American politics, in a Dec. 23 article. "So efficient, in fact, that the party has extracted every possible benefit and now must steer a more racially sensitive course to avoid alienating the growing numbers of minority voters and moderate white women who will be crucial in future elections."
The Bush administration's criticism of Lott was a gesture toward that Republican future. But Lott was abandoned so quickly by his putative allies, something seemed out of sync.
"The denunciation of Lott by conservative intellectuals, commentators and elected officials struck a harsh tone that rarely, if ever, was heard from comparable sources in previous decades," Edsall added. He noted that many prominent GOP politicians have used the race card to build a Republican ascendancy.
Concerned with changing demographics, Republicans now seek ways to maintain that strength while gaining support from new constituencies. The GOP's racially tinged campaigns helped gain votes of most white men, but that base is declining. Republicans "can't be a majority party without expanding our coalition," GOP pollster Matthew Dowd told Edsall in his Post story. Edsall quotes another Republican strategists as saying, "We have just about maxed out with white men."
New blood is needed to fuel the party's growth. The GOP's racist reputation is a barrier to its new outreach. An important element of that outreach is the White House office of faith-based initiatives. Republican spokespeople tout this initiative as a way to provide faith-based social service groups with the same kind of resources secular groups receive.
But critics, and cynics, describe it as an audacious attempt by the GOP to pry the black vote away from the Democratic Party by gaining the favor of the black clergy through the promise of financial grants.
After a few false starts and the high-profile resignation of John DiIulio, the former leader of the White House program, the faith-based initiatives agenda is back on track and aiming to win the heart of the black community, the black clergy.
Ironically, the Lott controversy may once again turn minorities toward the Party of Lincoln, and vice versa. Such mutual respect would be a welcome respite from our contentious racial history, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.
Happy New Year.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times E-mail: Salim4x@aol.com
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