The whole country is up in arms about an asinine remark made by the incoming majority leader in the senate. The remark sounded as though he was pampering an old relic from the past, Senator Strom Thurmond (though he was still a sitting senator at age one hundred!), on his centenary celebration. Senator Trent Lott apparently made his remarks with a gleam in his eyes. If only Strom Thurmond, Lott said, had won the presidency on a segregationist platform in 1948 instead of Harry Truman, (who ran on a civil rights agenda), then the South could have lawfully conducted its discrimination and segregation with honor and the good old days would never have ended! To many sensitive minds, the statements were unadulterated bigotry and racism.
Many Americans still feel guilty for their treatment of the African Americans before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was only a full century after the emancipation proclamation of Lincoln, freeing the slaves from bondage to their owners that the blacks in this country had any hope of being considered as equals. For close to two hundred years, the majority white population closed their eyes to the injustice of segregation. At the same time Americans were touting their democracy as the best in the world. They were also spreading it and propagating it to the rest of the world. Though the white Americans dared not own any slaves after the defeat of the South in the Civil War, the feelings that the African race was inferior to the Caucasians were deeply imbedded in them. Emancipation proclamation had freed the slaves but yet they were treated as unique entities. A new phrase had been coined ' equal but separate. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed by President Lyndon Johnson changed this, giving every American regardless of color and race equal rights.
Racist feelings were especially prevalent in the Deep South-Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina. These were the four states that voted for Strom Thurmond in the primaries of 1948. Many politicians switched parties and became Republicans as a protest to the Civil Rights proposals of Harry Truman. Others stayed on as Democrats and continued to be rabid supporters of segregation. One of them to remain as a Democrat was a senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, who was the mentor of Bill Clinton. Clinton later bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award on Senator Fulbright. Ironically, by the time Civil Rights legislation was enacted in 1964, more Republicans supported the bill than the Democrats.
Senator Trent Lott, who was one of the southerner segregationists, grew up in Mississippi surrounded by people, who were lamenting about the changes occurring around them. Though they were not able to publicly denounce the civil rights for blacks, deep inside they could never accept the African race as equal.
There are similar problems in most countries of the modern world. In India it is the fate of the Untouchables and other lower castes. Because of lack of opportunities, generations were condemned to do menial jobs. Frustration leads to lassitude and many times to aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, no law can undo a social structure that has developed over a long period of time. It will be many lifetimes before all the castes of Hindu society are treated as equals.
America has had a shorter history of slavery and segregation compared to India's caste system. Yet it is struggling to put it behind itself. The sentiments of segregation are still deep rooted and only can be wiped out by constantly being vigilant about it. The younger generation, hopefully, has a different mindset and when the old guards die off, segregation and discrimination should die a natural death.
Senator Lott's nostalgic statement has opened the eyes of Americans that old guards are not yet dead. In fact, many are in very powerful positions in our government. This reminder and awareness of the existence of bigotry can only help in advancing the agenda of complete and unbiased integration. The racist sentiment is not unique to the Republican Party. There were many Democrats who have made racially insensitive remarks in the past. Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat, recently mentioned the 'N' word in a public forum. He was referring to 'white niggers' when he was blathering about some nonsense. Yet, the word nigger was used in a derogatory way. During World War II, ex-Ku Klux Klan member Robert Byrd had said that he would rather die thousand times and see the Old Glory trampled in the dirt, than see it degraded by mongrels, who were the blackest specimen from the wilds! Many prominent blacks routinely use the term 'white boys'. San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Al Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile, moviemaker Spike Lee and Civil Rights Activist Rev Al Sharpton have made reference to whites in a racially demeaning way. If Clinton could bestow honors on racist Senator Fulbright, why can't Senator Lott praise Strom Thurmond on his one-hundredth birthday? Does the letter D after a Democratic politician stand for Double Standard? The Democratic politicians only get a slap on their wrists (Jesse Jackson is another example), whereas Republicans are held to a higher standard. There is blatant hypocrisy here.
The Democrats also would like to make this a political issue in order to alienate black voters and drive a deeper wedge between them and the Republicans. Moreover, having lost their power in Washington and no new ideas for the foreseeable future getting any traction with the voters, the Democrats are clutching to any straw that they can find. Senator Lott has given them one to hang on to get some political mileage. Race in politics is quite a hot potato, as Senator Lott found out.
Having said all that, there is absolutely no place for bigots in the political arena in the United States. Senator Lott has now stepped step down, for making deplorable statements. He had used this punch line about America being better if Thurmond had been president, in the past in Mississippi. But as incoming Senate Majority leader in Washington such sentiments cannot be expressed even if he has harbored them all his life. They are offensive and deplorable to all the minorities, who had to endure insufferable damages under the dominant majority, only in the recent past in this country. It was an accident that the truth was blurted out by the Senator. His profuse apologies would have been accepted if he was a Democrat but as a Republican he will not be able to lead his party in the senate. When he saw his support in the senate dwindling, he has now wisely decided to step aside. The neo-Republican politicians (not the old guards) put intense pressure of Senator Lott to resign (and to his credit, the President himself showed no support for this kind of bigotry).
Americans are generally very tolerant and forgiving. But intolerance of any kind cannot be tolerated. Race relations affect not only the African Americans (though they suffered the most in the past). The Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Vietnamese and all other races have to be given the same opportunity as the Caucasian race. The playing field needs to be leveled for all races. The old guards and defenders of racism may be incorrigible but the country has made remarkable progress in the last three decades in fighting discrimination. As we can see there is much more to be done.