Monday, November 26, 2007

Trent Lott and the Waning of Primary Racism

FAREWELL TO THE DINOSAUR. Trent Lott announced his retirement from the United States Senate today. He'll be leaving effective at the end of this year or the beginning of 2008. Lott's significance in American politics is that he is one of the last racist political figures who engaged in the direct promotion of white supremacy. Lott not only expressed a sense of pride in Mississippi's vote for segregationist Strom Thurmond back in 1848, he also was extremely active in promoting the memory of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and promoted the Council of Conservative Citizens as a replacement for the old white Citizens Councils. Wary of being fully identified with the cause of racism in the post-civil rights era, Lott was circumspect in his efforts for the cause of white supremacy. But he regularly reminded people that his loyalties lie with the primary racism of slavery, segregation, and opposition to integration.
Speaking at a 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lott declared that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform." Asked to explain his statement in an interview with the extreme rightwing publication Southern Partisan, Lott said, "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party... and more of The South's sons, Jefferson Davis' descendants, direct or indirect, are becoming involved with the Republican party."

A THOUSAND SECONDARY RACISMS BLOOM. But Lott's passing from the political scene has mostly symbolic significance. The weight of political racism has passed from the "primary" segregationism racism of Lott, Jesse Helms, and Strom Thurmond to various forms of "secondary" or indirect racism. Shelby Steele's critique of Barack Obama as untrustworthy because he's "black" in the sense of being part of the black community is one example of "secondary racism." Steele is not making the direct claim that whites are superior to blacks. Instead, he's arguing indirectly that the politics of black culture make any (non-conservative) black person a suspect candidate. As an advocate of color-blindness, Steele's arguments about Obama are similar to the arguments of William Bennett and others who argue that black culture is handicapped by "race-consciousness." Conservatives have come up with a barrage of indirect racist arguments against affirmative action, school desegregation, and attempts to stop racial profiling among other things. Secondary racism rules on the right.

RACISM LOSING ITS WAY? One of the things that is happening to the Republican Party is that they're losing access to the narratives of secondary racism. Where the Republicans used to campaign against "black crime," affirmative action, the "ghetto drug epidemic," hip hop influenced popular culture, and other "black" phenomena, they've largely been unable to develop a racial narrative in opposition to African-Americans for the 2008 campaign. While hardly out of sight, the racist thrust of Republican campaigning has shifted from blacks to Mexicans and Muslims. They've also been careful to promote pedophiles as the new "other" in American society.

But none of these themes has the same appeal as secondary racisms used to have. It would be a mistake to view white voters as being less racist than they've been in the past. Think of the mountain of racial jokes and stereotypes directed by whites to black people in this regard. It seems, however, that the Republicans dipped into the well of racism one too many times with the publication of the campaigns against affirmative action and the publication of The Bell Curve during the 90's and have run out of good ideas for playing on white racism without seeming "racist." Political racism seems to be losing its grip.

Maybe that's why Trent Lott is leaving the Senate. He might know that the game is up.


Tim said...

Ric, you might want to change the date of Thurmond's Dixiecrat run from "1848" to "1948". Whereas I'm sure Thurmond was in the Senate in 1848 as well as 1948, the Dixiecrat revolt was in the 20th century!

A few other things: one of my classes this term is on election law. Despite the protestations of the JD/B Moe/Goldstein crowd, election law is all about dealing with the fact that historically everybody is prejudiced. "Racially polarized voting" is the fine euphemism, but it was sad for me to learn how often in our history blacks vote for black people and whites vote for white people. Election law is all about preventing the tyranny of the majority from being too tyrannical. It seeks to ameliorate the dark natures of all humans.

Secondly, in my civil rights class yesterday we studied the fine opinion from the Supreme Court's last term, where the Court's majority determined that Jeff Goldstein is right, diversity is not a compelling educational interest and de jure segregated schools uphold the spirit and logic of Brown. See, we've come full circle, thanks to the reactionaries in that separate is equal again.

Lastly, Dan Collins, recent user of a gay slur on Glen Greenwald and stalker of his ex-girlfriends, has a wonderful piece on you on the top of Protein Wisdom. Apparently, fresh off his victory over Richard Dawkins and the ghost of Charles Darwin (it's possible Collins and his superstition, err Catholicism, might believe in ghosts!), he has decided a year old piece in which a reporter quoted you is a grand opportunity to display his version of wit.

It's a pity for me that Vonnegut died (not so much I think for him, since he seemed excited by the prospect). If he continued to have breath, he would have enjoyed making fun of fools like the American Right Wing. Collins should read of any of his books, especially Cat's Cradle.

It's my oblique way of complimenting your comments in the same article as almost Vonnegut-esque. In the vein of PW, you're a damned humanist!

PS Somehow, they mean that as an insult...

Ric Caric said...

Tim, Thanks for the kind words. Send me an e-mail at There's something I'd like to discuss with you off the board.