Lott, Reagan and Republican Racism

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Southern Strategy: The race question has haunted Reagan and the GOP for decades

Here's some advice for Republicans eager to attract more African-American supporters: don't stop with Trent Lott. Blacks won't take their commitment to expanding the party seriously until they admit that the GOP's wrongheadedness about race goes way beyond Lott and infects their entire party. The sad truth is that many Republican leaders remain in a massive state of denial about the party's four-decade-long addiction to race-baiting. They won't make any headway with blacks by bashing Lott if they persist in giving Ronald Reagan a pass for his racial policies.

The same could be said, of course, about such Republican heroes as, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon or George Bush the elder, all of whom used coded racial messages to lure disaffected blue collar and Southern white voters away from the Democrats. Yet it's with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, that the Republican's selective memory about its race-baiting habit really stands out.

Space doesn't permit a complete list of the Gipper's signals to angry white folks that Republicans prefer to ignore, so two incidents in which Lott was deeply involved will have to suffice. As a young congressman, Lott was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for "states' rights" — a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters.

Then there was Reagan's attempt, once he reached the White House in 1981, to reverse a long-standing policy of denying tax-exempt status to private schools that practice racial discrimination and grant an exemption to Bob Jones University. Lott's conservative critics, quite rightly, made a big fuss about his filing of a brief arguing that BJU should get the exemption despite its racist ban on interracial dating. But true to their pattern of white-washing Reagan's record on race, not one of Lott's conservative critics said a mumblin' word about the Gipper's deep personal involvement. They don't care to recall that when Lott suggested that Reagan's regime take BJU's side in a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, Reagan responded, "We ought to do it." Two years later the U.S. Supreme Court in a resounding 8-to-1 decision ruled that Reagan was dead wrong and reinstated the IRS's power to deny BJU's exemption.

Republican leaders and their apologists tend to go into a frenzy of denial when members of the liberal media cabal bring up these inconvenient facts. It's that lack of candor, of course, that presents the biggest obstacle to George W. Bush's commendable and long overdue campaign to persuade more African-Americans to defect from the Democrats to the Republicans. It's doomed to fail until the GOP fesses up its past addiction to race-baiting, and makes a sincere attempt to kick the habit.