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Senator Lott and the Legacy of Race

Even many Republicans are rightly appalled by Trent Lott's nostalgic appeal to Southern segregationism and the Dixiecrats. The Lott controversy, however, raises larger questions about the ways both major parties continue to incite and appeal to race in various guises in order to achieve fragile governing coalitions. Unloading Lott may be just what Republicans need. Nonetheless, his forced exodus distracts us from the more insidious role race continues to play in our political life.

As far back as the late nineteenth century, some southern populists tried to build a biracial coalition on anti-corporate, anti-banks, anti-rail programs, only to see that coalition splintered. Southern Democrats fostered what is now widely recognized as a vast myth of vicious black crime and rapacious black male sexuality and thereby exacerbated long standing racial fears.

Poor and working class southern whites in effect were offered a bargain. In exchange for accepting a subordinate role in the economy and workplace, they gained membership in the whites only club. Members could attend the same churches, social gatherings, and recreational amenities, and before the criminal justice system all were awarded the benefit of the doubt.

Like turn of the twentieth century Democrats, today's Republicans need many rural and working class whites. Their economic agenda serves the interests of at most ten percent of the population and perhaps thirty percent of those who actually vote. Republicans cannot thrive on stock options and estate tax give-aways alone. But they also need to retain the support of many affluent and generally well educated white professional men and women. Though racial equality may not constitute the latter's central political concerns, part of their self-identity lies in a commitment to educational, economic, and social opportunity for all.

In such a context, racial politics must be played in a more subtle way. Appeals to race are part of an ongoing Republican Party strategy, especially in some hotly contested Senatorial races and occasionally even at the Presidential level.


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What generally works best is tacit appeals to race, such as Ronald Reagan's choice of Philadelphia, Mississippi with his accompanying defense of states rights to launch his 1980 campaign or the infamous Willie Horton ads during the elder Bush's 1988 campaign. These tactics were controversial and were labeled racist by some commentators, but the criticism never gained traction.

Reagan's rhetoric lacked Lott's explicit celebration of legal segregation. Nonetheless, his choice of a venue and message subtly told the audience "I share your concerns, but you and I know that direct appeals to race would call down the wrath of the (powerful liberal media)." Republicans scored the triple triumph of building on a rural minority's fears about race, its sense of exclusion from mainstream culture, and lingering anti-corporate bias. The authors of such a strategy were properly recognized as masters of their craft. Lott's overt appeals to a racist past, however, makes most Republican strategists wince.

Though some Democrats may enjoy Republican discomfort over this incident, they must acknowledge the modern Democratic politics of race. Democrats hope to construct coalitions by appealing to urban minorities even as some of their traditional labor base is repelled by those minorities. Many Democrats have eagerly endorsed drug wars, sexual abstinence, and school standard campaigns that have always disproportionately affected and targeted minority communities

Progressive Democrats can't and shouldn't give up the quest to build a more economically just society. Without greater social justice for working class whites, racism will remain an all too easy default option for many rural and working class whites. Nonetheless, progressives need to recognize that economics will never automatically trump race--or gender. Race in some form has long been part of the code by which many Americans define themselves and even tame their deepest personal demons and insecurities. Many of our forbidden pleasures, whether drugs, sexuality, bodily expression, though widely dispersed among the whole population, are disproportionately sanctioned in and projected onto those of different color. Like Trent Lott, we make life easier on ourselves by imagining that without the misfortune of "their" mixture in our midst, we would not suffer "all those problems."

There is no way out of our racial conundrums without acknowledging the psycho-social origins of race as a central theme in our politics. .Part of that process must be to nurture forms of identity that are less reliant on domination and exclusion of those whose only difference lies in ethnic origin, history, or crudely elaborated physical differences. Ultimately,more expansive forms of identity can embrace not only those who differ but also the dissonant currents within ourselves. As Walt Whitman recognized, great nations and individuals contain multitudes. Their greatness lies in working always to fold as much of the surging currents of humanity as possible into a sustainable individual and collective life. If the politics of race stops merely with an appropriate censure of Senator Lott, it will fall far short of our needs.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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