the Real Distraction of Trent Lott

Recently a very impoverished set of excuses and defenses has been offered up on Trent Lott’s behalf. According to Lott’s defenders and apologists, his critics are “overreacting” and “hurting America”; they “prevent Americans from focusing on important issues” and “obviously fail to understand Southern culture” or fail to understand “the informal context” of Lott’s racist comments. Pat Buchanan said that Lott’s comments were “innocuous”; Senator Shelby of Alabama even suggested that Lott shouldn’t be “lynched”.

Lott’s critics would have been accused of race baiting, too, if his comments hadn’t been so plain and so hateful. Lott’s chief accomplishment so far is to have been so insensitive and crude that it was impossible for his defenders to accuse his critics of race baiting. Eventually, even President Bush, who’s never shown the least interest in opposing racism, had to criticize Trent Lott’s comments, all while continuing to support Lott as the Senate majority leader.

What lies behind this maddening spasm of unconvincing excuses and empty defenses is the idea that the material conditions of racism have withered under the harsh sun of racial reform. Lott and his defenders, indeed most Republicans and Democrats, suggest that racism is largely, if not entirely a thing of the past. Have you noticed that prominent white politicians are comfortable criticizing racism harshly only insofar as everyone consents to the idea that it’s a thing of the past?

I cannot remember, nor can I imagine a nationally prominent white politician suggesting that old-fashioned racism (the kind in which white people enjoy the privileges of discrimination against and social stigma of non-whites) continues to be a problem in the US. There’s plenty of talk from Lott and his kind about reverse racism (the idea that non-white people benefit from being stigmatized and discriminated against), but the only time they talk about racism is during speeches opposing affirmative action as outdated and unnecessary.

But the idea that racism has vanished in the US is plainly and dangerously wrong. According to a New York Times report last week by Alan Krueger, employers are still very likely to discriminate against African American job applicants, simply for seeming to be African American.

Researchers at MIT and the University of Chicago made up fake job applicants and resumes, randomly assigning to each one a name which skews toward African American or white population groups. There were Kristens and Brads, together with Tamikas and Tyrones, all of whom had equivalent resumes and applied to the same jobs (in Boston and Chicago). From the middle of 2001 to the middle of 2002, these researchers submitted about 5,000 such applications and then tracked which of the phantom applicants were called for interviews. The only way to distinguish these applicants was by the presumed ethnicity of their names.

The results? Applicants with names which skew white were more likely to be called for an interview: 50% more likely, in fact. As Krueger says, “Interviews were requested for 10.1 percent of applicants with white-sounding names and only 6.7 percent of those with black-sounding names.” This research suggests that being perceived as non-white in the job market is a real disadvantage; or, put the other way round, being perceived as white in the job market confers unmerited privilege.

Whether or not one cares to connect the politics and policies of Trent Lott and his cronies with the attitudes and opinions which explain these research findings, it’s clear that, contrary to the wishful thinking of most white people, including politicians, racism is alive and well in the US, that it harms non-white people’s lives every day, that it benefits white people’s real lives every day.

And so there’s more than a little irony in the fact that Lott’s racist comments obscured a credible report which demonstrates the vitality of racism and privilege. Strom Thurmond, after all, to whom Lott is the authentic political heir, made opposition to the Fair Employment Practices act a cornerstone of his 1948 presidential campaign — the one which Lott suggested America would have been better off had it been victorious. In his acceptance speech of the Dixiecrat nomination for president, Thurmond specifically named antilynching and employment discrimination laws as “communistic” and a “fundamental threat to the American way of life”. Any law which opposes employment discrimination, Thurmond said in that speech, is

admirably suited to the Russian form of government, where the thoughts, activities and ambitions of the people are controlled from Moscow, and they live and move at the whim and caprice of a dictator. It will not work in free America or in any free country where the dignity and worth and liberty of the individual is respected.

Thurmond tried to associate anti-employment discrimination laws with “Joseph Stalin” who used, or so Thurmond claimed, anti-discrimination laws “as a means of advancing himself to supreme dictator of the Soviet Union”. Thurmond also tried to associate such laws with Nazi Germany:

From the point of view of the employee, he or she will no longer have the right to choose his or her associates, either on the job or in the labor organizations. The employer is deprived of his right to employ people who will best serve his business. He cannot promote and demote as his judgment demands. From the point of view of all of us…the net effect…will be to force all business and business relationships in this country into a Washington pattern, guided and enforced by a federal Gestapo, with dangerous powers over the lives of all our people.

Perhaps Lott’s defenders and apologists are right to suggest that focusing on Lott’s racist comments distracts the American people from more important issues? Focusing on Trent Lott’s personal vices — support of injustice, callousness, insularity, insensitivity — should not distract ordinary people of good will from criticizing and opposing politics and policies he represents.

Somehow I don’t think that’s what his defenders had in mind.

KENDALL CLARK lives in Dallas where he publishes and edits, an antiracist resource on the Web. He can be reached at: