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Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010

Party of Haters

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A popular epithet among young people these days is “hater.” They really don’t like intolerance. More of us should start calling out hatred when we see it.

That is especially true when one of our two major political parties has made a conscious decision to openly appeal to haters.

The current debate in the Senate over allowing gay people willing to risk their lives for their country to serve openly in the military is just the most recent example of the Republican Party appealing to bigotry on civil rights issues.

Back in 2005, the year before he died, James Cameron, the 91-year-old founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, made a special trip to Washington, D.C., to be honored by the Senate.

Cameron, at that time the only living American known to have survived a lynching, was invited to the Capitol along with 200 relatives and descendants of more than 4,700 black people who were lynched in this country from 1882 to 1968.

The occasion was the passage of a Senate resolution apologizing for racism in blocking more than 200 anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress while African Americans were being publicly murdered.

The resolution was submitted by two Southern senators, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, and then-Sen. George Allen, a Republican from Virginia. It was co-sponsored by 80 senators.

But the celebration of that moment was overshadowed by the shameful continuation of one party’s pattern on racial issues. All of the senators who refused to sign onto the bill as co-sponsors were Republicans.

They included many still prominent in the party today—Utah’s Orrin Hatch, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Texas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison.

There was no recorded vote. Republicans controlled the Senate at that time and Majority Leader William Frist of Tennessee called for a voice vote so none of his Republican colleagues would have to go on record as “pro-lynching.”

Individual senators, of course, could later let racist voters in their own states know where they’d stood (or cowered) on the issue.

It was a continuation of a sorry reversal of history for Republicans on race. Republicans, after all, were the party of Lincoln.

The original haters in the Senate were Southern Democrats, filibustering for decades against anti-lynching legislation and every other civil rights bill.

That was when it was called the “Solid South”—solid Democrat and solid racist. The late Democratic Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, whose name graces the Senate Office Building, routinely used the N-word on the floor of the Senate while opposing civil rights.

Russell had been a mentor to Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. As president, Johnson broke from Southern racism to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He even raised the civil rights battle cry “We Shall Overcome” before a joint session of Congress.

That was the moment real racial progress could have begun in this country. Republicans, after all, had supported civil rights when Southern Democrats opposed it.

What would America be like today if Republicans and Democrats had started working together for racial equality in the mid-’60s?

Instead, Richard Nixon, running for president in 1968, transformed Republicans into the party of haters.

He called it the “Southern Strategy,” openly courting white Southerners alienated by Johnson’s embrace of civil rights. And it worked like a charm.

Today it’s once again the Solid South—solid Republican—with a party that has no qualms about appealing to haters who saw nothing wrong with stringing up black people in trees and holding community picnics under those swinging bodies.

Running Out of Excuses

Fast-forward to this week’s debate over allowing gays to serve in the military without lying about who they are.

Republicans have run out of excuses other than hatred and bigotry to refuse to repeal the notorious compromise of Democratic President Bill Clinton called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

In 1993, Clinton hadn’t realized how difficult it was going to be to live up to his campaign promise to end discrimination against gays in the military. After all, many states, including Wisconsin, already outlawed employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But when Republicans say they support the troops, they aren’t talking about all the troops.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was sold as an inch forward from “Don’t You Dare Ever Tell” because of strong opposition to ending discrimination within the military itself at that time.

Nearly 20 years later, all those excuses are gone. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now has the backing of the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, most military leaders and 70% of the troops themselves.

Arizona Sen. John McCain and other Republican opponents are left to argue it’s not unanimous yet. As long they can find one hater in the military, their party intends to represent him.