The Republican Party's Achilles' Heel

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Ms. Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and former Professor of History at the University of California Davis.

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SEXUAL SCANDAL is not what plagues Republicans. It's outbursts of racial insensitivity, casually uttered across the country, even in California, where minorities are now the majority.

The latest flap involves Bill Back, a Bush ally who is state GOP vice chairman and campaigning for the top position. In 1999, Back reprinted an essay titled "What if the South had won the Civil War?" in his e-mail newsletter. The essay's author, William S. Lind, wrote that "history might have taken a better turn" and that "the real damage to race relations in the South came not from slavery, but from Reconstruction, which would not have occurred if the South had won."

Back initially said he's not responsible for the opinions of others and that he'd sent articles promoting a broad range of political positions. But nostalgia for slavery is not a political perspective. It is simply racist.

Then Back realized he should recant. "Upon reflection," he admitted, "I should have been more sensitive regarding issues raised in this piece and not included it in the e-mail. I regret any pain and offense taken by readers." But the damage is done. Back should resign his post and save his party further embarrassment.

The larger problem, as political history shows, is not Sen. Trent Lott or Bill Back. It is the political culture of the Republican Party. For four decades, white Southern racial supremacists, nicknamed "Dixiecrats, " held the Democratic Party hostage. In 1968, in the wake of the civil rights movement, Richard Nixon successfully deployed a new "Southern Strategy" designed to pander to white fears and nudge Southern Democrats into the Republican Party. It worked. And ever since, the white South has given Republicans the political edge Democrats had once enjoyed. (Which doesn't mean that most Republicans embrace that Dixiecrat tradition.)

It's no surprise, then, that the Republican Party suffers from the same racism that corroded and divided the Democratic Party. And, like earlier Dixiecrats, these good ol' boys refuse to recognize that racism is no longer acceptable in American political culture.

On the day Lott resigned as Senate Republican leader, for example, Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., said that outgoing Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., is a "bitch" whose politics so irritated him that "I must admit I had segregationist feelings." Ballenger insisted he was only guilty of a poor "choice of words."

But words matter. As do actions. That's why Lott's demise won't change anything. The NAACP rates Sen. Bill Frist, the new majority leader, as only marginally better than Lott. The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda views Frist as less tolerant than Lott. And both Lott and Frist cast votes against the Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 1996 and the Hate Crimes Expansion Act of 2000.

Although President Bush has tried to weaken the Democratic base by posing as a friend of minority voters, his political nominations and economic policies reflect his inability to grasp the poverty and discrimination experienced by racial minorities. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, once led the fight against desegregating Missouri schools. Charles Pickering, whom Bush still champions for a position on a federal appeals court, tried in 1994 to lighten the sentence of a man convicted of cross-burning. Bush also campaigned for Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, R-Ala., whose record on race is so deplorable that the New Republic headlined a recent article about him,"The senator who's worse than Lott."

At the dawn of the 20th century, W. E. B. DuBois, an African American sociologist and civil rights leader, predicted that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." Sadly, it is the problem of this century as well.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

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Orson Olson - 1/20/2003

Derek Catsam writes: "I guess the 90% of blacks and majority of women who vote Democratic on a consistent basis just aren't smart enough to know whwre [sic] their interest lies."

Considering that American blacks are considerably more religious, and much more conservative than Dems on crime and abortion--your statement could very well be true!

--Orson Olson

Derek Catsam - 1/19/2003

What vacuous piffle. I hate to throw rational thought your way for fear of what will happen to it, but one can be a person of the left, a democrat, and yet not be a 1940s Commie. "blacks, women and gays are the pampered children of this society"? Yes, because blacks, women and gays have had it SO GOOD in America. "It is now Dmocrats who are racist and sexist"? I see, so trying to ameliorate past wrongs and recognize some of the historical problems with race and gender and so forth makes us racist and sexist? But I guess the 90% of blacks and majority of women who vote Democratic on a consistent basis just aren't smart enough to know whwre their interest lies. Democrats openly support quotas? Evidence? Most certainl;y don';t support hard quotas, but yes, many of us believe in the ideal of diversity and we think that historical reasons justify this. By the way, if you've been called a racist ten times in your life, it might be time to look in the mirror.

Christopher Riggs - 1/18/2003

I'm sure the families of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard will be interested to learn that their murdered relatives were "pampered children."

Stephen Thomas - 1/17/2003

Calling others "racist" is now the last refuge of scoundrels.

The word now longer has any meaning, since every man, woman and child in America has now been called racist at least 10 times. The expletive now means: "I hate you and your ideas."

It is the Democrats, in fact, who are now resolutely racist (and sexist). Democrats don't even bother to pretend otherwise. Democrats openly support racial and sexual quotas. This is racism and sexism.

The constant weepy concern for blacks as the quintessential victim is now boring, stupid and for PR purposes only. The correct, liberal stance is to pretend to shed as tear every time the words "black, woman or gay" are uttered.

In fact, blacks, women and gays are the pampered children of this society. Intellectuals, with their constant pretense of weepy concern, are laughable.

Does anybody subscribe to this site who isn't a 1940s commie? That's all the Democratic party has to offer.

janis f. kearney - 1/16/2003

Sadly, Ms. Rosen's indictment of the Republican party is too true. Minorities, and specifically, African Americans hoped against hope that the Republican party had genuinely seen the light, when they so quickly dumped Sen. Lott, as their senate leader. Not so, my cynical best judgement told me. It was a political move for the benefit of the party and the Bush white house. One grand stand such as this one, does not a sea change make. Why would the Republican party change their philosophies so quickly to appease black America and white liberals? They absconded the presidency (by whatever means we want to paint it), they won the mid-term election by our president taking political liberties most presidents would have been ashamed to take while sitting in the oval office, and there is a small, but growing number of minorities saddling over to their side of the fence...given the Democrat's wishy-washy stances on issues most Americans care about. What do they have to lose?? They can say one thing and do another -- and still remain in power.