(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Even from people who are otherwise apparently astute, we still see the assertion that Senator Lott is not a racist. (Take, for instance, the assertion by one of the co-conspirators at Volokh that Lott "probably isn't a racist" and that Democrats should merely accept his apology and move on).

But let's try to take this logically, given what we know about human thinking and behavior, and about history.

First, I take it that we can all agree that – at least through young adulthood – Trent Lott was a racist. He thought that white people were better than Black people, and that governmental and private institutions should be arranged so as to recognize this "fact" and to distribute benefits accordingly. If you are still one of those who takes the position that mid-20th-century Southern white opposition to integration, and to statutory and judicially-enforced rights for Blacks, was not racism in this sense – well, then, you're not going to be open to the rest of what I have to say, so don't bother reading further.

But it is possible for people to change their beliefs, even on major issues. There are some people who were supporters of segregation and opponents of the civil rights movement 30 or 40 years ago, who are not racists now. But there are some people – I think in fact a majority, but you don't have to agree with me on that of course – whose beliefs on this major issue have not changed. Their vocabulary may have changed, the particular policies they support may have changed, they are more willing to make exceptions for Colin Powell and Condi Rice, but there are still many racists in this nation. It would not be impossible, or even ipso facto improbable, that a U.S. Senator (or several) would be among them.

So how can we begin to tell the difference between those who changed their beliefs on this issue of great importance, and those who did not? Let's even leave aside Senator Lott's voting behavior for purposes of this discussion. Here is one way you can tell: people who make major transformations on important moral beliefs tend, if they have actually made an honest change, not to whitewash their past. Let me be more plain: if you've really changed, you don't lie about where you changed from. True change is accompanied by honesty.

So now let's get back to Senator Lott specifically. Here's what he told the Anti-Defamation League, on a previous occasion in which he got some heat for cozying up to overt racists (from an article this morning in the NYT):
In 1999, Mr. Lott wrote to the Anti-Defamation League that he "could never support — or seek support from — a group that disdained or demeaned" people because of their race. "I grew up in a home where you didn't treat people that way, and you didn't stand with anyone foolish or cruel enough to do so," he said.
Compare this assertion with what the Times reports, in the same article, about the actual beliefs in the home where Senator Lott grew up:
Back at home, the turmoil at Ole Miss was roiling Pascagoula and even Mr. Lott's family. Ira Harkey Jr., editor of The Pascagoula Chronicle, was writing editorials denouncing racial violence and criticizing Barnett for fighting the integration of Ole Miss. In response, a group of local people — many of them shipyard workers, Mr. Harkey says — harassed him for months, threatening violence and even shooting out his office windows.

Some time later, Mr. Harkey said, he received a letter from a woman who told him that if he did not publish her letter it would prove "you are truly an integrationist and I hope you not only get a hole through your office door but through your stupid head." It was signed Iona W. Lott — Mr. Lott's mother.

"I called her, asked if she'd sent it to me, and she said she certainly had sent it to me and she meant every word," said Mr. Harkey, now 84.

So what we have here is Senator Lott recently lying, in writing, about the belief system in which he was raised.

I know it would be hard to say, "my dear old mother, whom I love, was a vicious racist." And I'm not urging that anyone who wants to prove the bona fides of his change of heart would necessarily have to say that particular thing. But what I am saying is that somebody who goes out of his way to volunteer a lie about the nature of the change of his views on race – in order to make his starting-point seem nicer than it actually was – is probably lying about the nature of the change of his views on race in order to make his current landing-point seem nicer than it is, too.

Am I naïve enough to expect this level of honesty from politicians? Of course not. Nor am I naïve enough to think that someone has changed his core belief on a crucial set of issues, if he is still intentionally dissembling about it.

posted by sam 9:57 AM 0 comments


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger


email: first name@last name dot net