During one of Senator Trent Lott‘s press conferences last week, which I believe was apology attempt number five, CNN busily conducted a viewer poll. In the wake of Lott’s rare example of undisguised modern racism, which not only exposed the Achilles‘ heel of the Republican Party but opened a window into the national soul, one might have expected the network to probe its viewership for symptoms of Lott’s malady — to ask, for example, whether racial segregation was still an issue and what might be done about it. But instead of considering whether segregationism was a live dynamic with serious consequences and vetting it accordingly, CNN, like other media, treated it as strictly a thing of the past, a historical trend whose vestigial impulses linger with Lott alone. The poll asked only one question: Whether the audience believed that Lott should be forgiven. That it concluded with an overwhelming majority of people against Lott gave me little comfort.

If the public is tempted to believe that segregationism is a problem peculiar to Lott and Southern Republicans, the temptation is to also believe that getting rid of Lott addresses everything that‘s wrong. If Lott goes, his party will not be vilified for the views he represented, but exonerated for its “courage” in rooting out the bad apple. Bush will be applauded for his leadership. Whites by extension will get to feel morally vindicated, and we will all go back to our respective corners — to Wall Street, to South-Central — and retire the Negro problem until the next unfortunate moment.

But it was the Negro problem, of course, that gave rise to Southern flame keepers like Lott and to Strom Thurmond in the first place, though the media tend to soften the details of how it all happened. Take, for example, a 1948 presidential stump speech of Thurmond’s that‘s been making the rounds lately. Thurmond has been quoted in the Associated Press and elsewhere as having said that “There are not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to . . . admit the Negroes into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.” But I’ve listened to this speech repeatedly, and there‘s no mistaking it: He did not say “the Negroes,” or even “the Negro race,” as some other sources have documented it. He said “the nigger race.”

It’s important to get this right because as a country we have been soft-pedaling race for political expediency for so long, we hardly recognize the egregiousness of insults like this when they most urgently need to be remembered. It‘s important also because the “nigger” stratagem is not a memory at all, but a living legacy. Hard-core segregationism is exactly — specifically — what’s put the grand back in Grand Old Party in the last 40 years. Republicans made a promise to old-line Southern Democrats rattled by civil right movements and the specter of black encroachment that the GOP would now be the de facto party of white people, and that‘s been pretty much the foundation of the Republican Party ever since. The global bullying and corporate coddling and all the rest are but contemporary expressions of that original, wildly successful movement to steal the righteous thunder from Democrats and concentrate racial power into its own hands.

Modern Republicans have given themselves more plausible deniability of racism by appointing blacks — Condi Rice and Colin Powell are the highest-ranking to date — but these people are ultimately party loyalists who happen to be black. Bush the elder’s appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court a decade ago was the kind of crude and self-serving racial symbolism that gave affirmative action a bad name, but gave Republicans a good one.

Lott‘s sin was that he contradicted the image Republicans had carefully crafted to protect the more sensitive among us from the truth. But he didn’t misstate anything or misrepresent himself at all. He was merely iterating his fondness for Thurmond and for the old South, and expressing his cherished wish to preserve it. Enough voters and fellow lawmakers have tacitly agreed with him and sanctioned his barely refined racism that he has remained prominently employed for three decades. Now Trent Lott is giving Americans of all stripes the chance to weigh in on what race really means with the same degree of investment in the notion of what America is really about, and so far, we‘re not taking it. Not even Democrats, members of the mainstream party of color by default, want to condemn Lott too loudly for fear of alienating that magical but mythologically fickle core of white voters that everybody’s still fighting over, like the prettiest girl at the dance (Tom Daschle‘s first inclination was to let Lott off the hook, though he got so much heat, mostly from blacks, he had to toughen his stance). a

It’s not a stretch to say that any number of domestic troubles that have been re-classified for comfort‘s sake from racial to urban — poor schools, police brutality, the seemingly chronic violence in South-Central — are very direct descendants of segregation. Which makes it absurd that Lott could characterize segregation as a sad “moment” in American history, one that we must put behind us. Segregation was law in this country for most of its life. It was a 350-year “moment,” or, as Harvard professor Charles Ogletree put it, we had roughly 250 years of slavery, 100 years of de facto and actual Jim Crow, and 35 more years of something we have yet to define. Lott is betting that his recent appearance on Black Entertainment Television, in which he came out on the side of affirmative action while simultaneously arguing that Americans just weren’t ready for Martin Luther King Day when he voted against it, will serve to uncomplicate all this and let him keep his job in the bargain. It‘s an offensive and cynical move, but one that just might work in these offensive and cynical times: “There has been immoral leadership in my part of the country for a long time,” a cornered Lott admitted to BET interviewer Ed Gordon. Ironically, nobody’s discussed the racial ethics of government this plainly on prime-time news in years.

The silver lining might be that it also highlights an often unpleasant but unchanging truth in this country — whites, however high they ascend, need blacks to absolve them of their racial trespasses. For all the fear and loathing, blacks are the moral compass in a nation that might otherwise not have any to speak of. The most cynical side of me believes that Clarence Thomas only broke his 11-year silence on the bench to repudiate cross burnings because he knows this. His assertion that a cross burning is a specifically racial assault, not an exercise in free speech, is likely something he believes. But I can‘t help thinking that he also wants to confer some racial legitimacy to his party at this critical moment in a way that only he can. The most hopeful side of me believes that we can all rise to the occasion, and maybe a little above, by taking race out of the mouths of apologists and pollsters and recognizing it for the common denominator that it is and has always been in the American social calculus. Perhaps then we can look over our shoulders into the past and not be afraid of turning into pillars of salt.

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