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Race Relations

December 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The furor and fallout over Senator Trent Lott’s comments at the Strom Thurmond birthday party illustrate how entrenched race is in the politics of America, and the rise of Republican power in the last 40 years can be attributed in part to the party’s success in breaking the Democratic lock on the South.

With the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson and much of the Democratic Party embraced the civil rights movement, completing a black shift to the Democratic Party that began with the New Deal.

But many white Southerners saw new civil rights laws as unwarranted, unconstitutional intrusions by the federal government into their local affairs, and one of the results was a strong shift to the Republican Party.

One of the GOP newcomers was veteran Democratic politician Strom Thurmond, who switched to the Republican Party over the issues of civil rights and state’s rights, a major defection in the long march of Southern whites from their century-old political home in the Democratic Party to the GOP.

In 1968, Richard Nixon used what became known as his “Southern Strategy”– a plan to draw support from the traditionally Democratic South by promising not to promote sweeping social changes in race relations. Republicans have carried white voters in every Presidential election since 1968.

The success of that strategy not only brought Nixon into the White House twice, but also placed Ronald Reagan there for two terms in the 1980s. Reagan’s 1980 campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, stirred controversy when he told the crowd of his support for “states’ rights.” The phrase was long used as code for resistance to black advances, sure to be well-received by Southern voters.

And during the elder George Bush’s successful run for President in 1988, Republicans ran the infamous Willie Horton ad, which attacked Democratic contender Michael Dukakis for granting a furlough to the murderer — an ad that was widely assumed to appeal to the racial prejudices of whites.

With the election of Bill Clinton, a Southerner himself, the Democratic Party was still only able to make minor gains in the South over his two terms. As governor of Texas, and as a presidential candidate, George W. Bush has often made a point of specifically appealing to black and Latino voters.

But the president’s victorious 2000 campaign was not free of racially tinged controversy. Candidate Bush reached out to Southern conservatives by visiting Bob Jones University, a school that was long segregated, anti-Catholic, and even today forbids interracial dating.

In the general election, the Florida cliffhanger was fought out in the courts while charges of black voter suppression raged against the state government. George W. Bush became president with just nine percent of the black vote. But Bush’s large margin among white voters, especially in the South, helped him win the presidency and completed a half- century transition into GOP hands. Political analysts across the spectrum have said the president didn’t throw a lifeline to the floundering Senator Lott.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: He has apologized, and rightly so. Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. And the founding ideals of our nation and in fact the founding ideals of the political party I represent was and remains today the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.

RAY SUAREZ: Trent Lott resigned eight days later.

RAY SUAREZ: Here to help us put the Lott affair into a larger historical context are Angela Dillard, professor of intellectual history and politics at New York University. Lee Edwards, political historian and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He’s the author of The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America. And Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland; he is the president of the Organization of American Historians.

Well, Professor Dillard, let’s start with you. Is this a two-week story, a bump in the road for the Republican Party, or was the downfall of Trent Lott something more significant than that?

ANGELA DILLARD: I think it might prove to be significant. It’s hard to tell. I mean I think it’s going to depend on things like what happens in the upcoming Senate around things like judicial nominations. Is this going to become that sort of story that means that everybody now has to use this as a reference point about what they can and cannot say and who they can and cannot approve? And, of course, everybody has got to be thinking about Judge Pickering on that issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee Edwards, a big deal for the GOP or something that you can get past rather quickly?

LEE EDWARDS: I think it is a defining moment for the Republican Party. If you look at the old guard, as represented by Senator Lott, and the new guard as represented by President Bush, I think that this is a very significant point. I think there’s an opportunity here, and I think the way that the White House is looking at it is just that, as an opportunity, to reach out and try to build bridges to the African-American community.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Berlin?

IRA BERLIN: I guess would I take a position somewhere between these two. I think it’s a moment pregnant with significance. There are great possibilities there. Of course it speaks to an enormous change. The Republican Party, as you said in your opening remarks, is a party which has gotten fat on embracing the racist past. It has controlled the presidency since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 because of that racist strategy. It seems to be, in some ways, disabusing itself of that in dropping Senator Lott at this time.

But at the same time, there’s a constituency there, an important Republican constituency. And whether it is willing to abandon that constituency, which embraced Republicanism, precisely because the Democratic Party was the party of the Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party was a party which increasingly was the party, which gained the vast majority of black voters, whether it’s willing to do that, of course, is a big question. It entails major shifts in policy. Some of those policies are reflected in judicial nominations. But the policies are reflected in a whole variety of other matters that black voters are interested in.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Lee Edwards, listening to what Professor Berlin said, you talked about this as being a defining moment, but isn’t it also a moment filled with risk for Republicans as well? If they work too hard to mend fences, in some places, don’t they risk alienating people who have been steady voters and supporters in other places?

LEE EDWARDS: Well, I think there’s always that possibility. But, number one, Republicans, it seems to me, and from what I understand from Karl Rove and people like that in the White House, want to reach out, try to build up, to perhaps win as much as 15 or 20 percent of the African American constituency.

And if they can do that, they will be able to build, I think, and take a large step towards a true governing majority. I think the possibility of them losing significant support from the people who have been supporting them in the past because of that strategy is very, very slight and I think that’s the calculation in which they’re making.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dillard, Lee Edwards is talking about a party that is not a prisoner of its past. Do you see that in the offing?

ANGELA DILLARD: I think maybe — I think for the last couple of decades, the GOP has, in fact been moving in a direction that says look, we’re really going to work now to reach out to African-American voters, to Latino voters, to Asian-American voters. I mean, if you look back to what Lee Atwater was trying to do with the RNC in the late ’80s around these questions, I mean, I think there’s a real path here that they’re trying to outline for themselves for the future.

And it’s a path that they have to go, especially when one considers the effect of demographic issues in American politics, the changing nature of American political culture, especially in terms of race and ethnicity. So I think that they have no choice but to get out there and reach out to those voters and to the moderate white suburban voters and I think in some ways, they might have to simply risk alienating that solid base.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Berlin, is that easily done? Hasn’t the electric charge of race been a part of the way both parties run campaigns for a long time?

IRA BERLIN: Oh, absolutely. The race card has been a part of American politics since 1776. The Declaration of Independence creates a problem. All men are created equal in a slave society. Somehow that contradiction has to be negotiated. We negotiate those contradictions through the political process. And we’re still doing it.

I think again, that for the Republican Party, this speaks to perhaps some internal needs. I think many Republicans are embarrassed by the existence within their party, which continues to carry the racist vote, are embarrassed by the Confederate Flag issue, are embarrassed the way questions like reparations and so on resonate within the party. And I think, as was said, that the country is changing as well and there’s a large constituency, not simply black, but others, who are — also don’t want to be part of a party which carries the banner of racism, whether it’s done through code words or done in a more overt way.

So I think there’s something that’s happening within the Republican Party that this is speaking to, and I think also there’s something that’s happening outside of the Republican Party as well. And it’s the negotiation of that which seems to be happening at this moment, or I should say, the renegotiation of those changes.

RAY SUAREZ: Did this past month dredge up, Lee Edwards, a lot of history that neither party wanted to talk about? Some conversations that both sides would have been happy not to have?

LEE EDWARDS: Well, I think certainly this is the reason why conservatives are the first to criticize Trent Lott. Looking back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Barry Goldwater’s vote against it, now that vote, and I wrote a biography of Barry Goldwater and I studied this issue pretty carefully. He voted against that act on constitutional grounds saying that Title VII, equal employment opportunity, would lead to affirmative action. And of course he was right about that.

But in 1964 and 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, Mississippi was burning, and blacks looked at these two and said these are rights of political passage and if you’re not for us, you’re against us and therefore you’re racist and you’re a bigot.

So conservatives and Republicans have been carrying that as an albatross around their neck for some 40 years and that is why they were among the first to come forward and say this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that we’re neither one of those things.

RAY SUAREZ: But if as you suggest black voters misread Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Acts, could it perhaps be that white voters in the South misread it as well, because four of the six states that Goldwater carried nationwide were the same four states that Strom Thurmond carried in 1948?

LEE EDWARDS: They did, …I can say is that’s true but this was not a deliberate Southern strategy by Barry Goldwater. He went on to eject George Wallace, who was hinting that he would like to run on the ticket with him.

He then went to Lyndon Johnson in the White House and said let’s you and I, as the nominees for this Presidential race, agree that we will not use race in this campaign this fall. So Barry Goldwater did his very best to demonstrate that he was not a segregationist, that he was not a racist, that he was not a bigot. But very understandably, African Americans saw it a very different way.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dillard, wasn’t there a busy revolving door during that era? I mean, we have been paying attention to the way white Southern voters moved to the GOP, but during those same cluster of decades, there was a hefty move of African-American voters from the support to overwhelming support of Democratic candidates.

ANGELA DILLARD: I think that’s right. I think those were key years for the way that American politics started to literally reshape itself around some of these issues. What I think is really interesting in a lot of this is to look at what’s this meant for African-American conservatives and Republicans as they’ve tried to kind of pull African Americans back to the Republican Party away from the Democrats. And in some ways, what they’re trying to do now is what happened in the 1960s, especially where African-American Democrats worked so hard to push the party on those issues and concerns of African Americans, and were enormously successful.

So it seems to me that African-American Republicans now are trying to play that kind of historic role, whether or not they will actually have the support of the Republican Party behind them in trying to do this I think is an interesting question, and one well worth keeping an eye out on for the future.

RAY SUAREZ: You might say they have nowhere to go but up. A poll taken Sunday by the Gallup organization says six percent of blacks in the United States say the Republican Party best reflects their views. But a lot of Republicans, Professor Berlin, are trying — say they’re trying to get American politics to a post-race, issue-based footing. Is that possible now?

IRA BERLIN: That’s interesting. Issue-based — what exactly is that going to mean? My feeling is that voters, both white and black, generally read their understanding of politics is fairly shrewd and fairly correct. That is there’s a reason only six percent of black people consider themselves Republican. What exactly are the issues that are involved here? We know in some ways we are a more segregated society than we were in 1956. We know that changes in terms of the distribution of wealth have not changed greatly; that a disproportionate number of people of African descent are at the bottom, that affirmative action is a policy, in its various forms, that is something that black people are very interested in.

There are a whole variety of other issues that also draw black people to the Democratic Party, even with all of the baggage that the Democratic Party itself, you know, itself carries. Now it seems to me, if you want to move black people out of the Democratic Party, you’ve got to address those issues. Is the Republican Party prepared to do that?

RAY SUAREZ: Professors, Lee Edwards, thank you all.