I remember walking through Tompkins Square Park in New York City a couple years back, trying to explain to my fiscally conservative, small-government friend why I could not respect his decision to vote Republican. I tried to not raise my voice as I told him, a native New Yorker I love dearly, why the modern Grand Old Party makes me sick to my stomach.
"They made a deal with the devil," I said to him then. "I could never support this Republican Party."
I've been angry at the Republican Party for a long time. Or at least since 1980. That's when then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan came to my hometown to seal the deal on the "Southern Strategy" -- developed by Arizonan Barry Goldwater and later Californian Richard Nixon -- to use ignorant racism as bait to get dumb hicks in the electoral-rich South to go along with their policies of greed. I stayed away from the Neshoba County Fair the day Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign nine miles from where the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in August 1964. But a record crowd of cheering new white Republicans did not, turning out amid dozens of Confederate flags to cheer on Reagan's campaign, especially every time he bellowed the resurrected phrase "states' rights."
I knew what "states' rights" stood for then, and I know what it stands for now. It stands for the same thing it stood for back in 1948, just with adjustments for the times. (If you don't believe it, note the recent trend of courts, including the Supremes, to squelch states' rights when they do not benefit the white status quo.)
I was still at Mississippi State when Reagan sealed the deal among my people. I hadn't yet gone out and rubbed elbows with Upper West Side liberals or studied in the Ivy League or even known what alternative media was, but I knew a snooker when I saw one. I remember telling members of my family that those damned rich Republicans were playing us. They were intentionally poking at an ugly racist cancer that had not then, and still has not, been fully excised. They were insulting Mississippi, which had already insulted itself enough. Reagan's economic ideas might have benefited five or six families in Neshoba County, 10 max. As my partner is fond of saying: you're a damn fool if you make under $150,000 a year and call yourself a Republican. It just doesn't add up.
Unless, of course, you're a racist. The recent Trent Lott dust-up suddenly has much of the country talking about, or at least around, racism. It seems most Americans have no clue what it really means to be racist. Yes, you can have black friends, and hire and promote black employees, and listen to rap music and still be a racist. Plenty of white folks in Mississippi got along just fine with black people during the apex of Jim Crow, but they were still racists. It's the "ist" and "ism" part of the word that matters; that is, you support and practice societal policies that keep a race of people from achieving true equality and opportunity. You move to white-only suburbs, pull your kids out of public schools, blast using race as one of a checklist of admission or hiring criteria (as opposed to "son of alumnist"), vote to force your state to display a symbol of race terrorism in front of re-segregated schools, support school discipline policies that eject one in four young black men from classrooms, allow a drug war that has the same effect as Jim Crow, support a death penalty that disproportionately kills black and Hispanic men. You use words like "superpredator," "welfare queen," "urban youth," "ghetto violence."
That, fellow Americans, is racism. So is pandering to the people who do and say those things. I'm not sure which I believe is worse: the blatant racism or the blatant pandering. And I've lived slap-dab among both of them. In Neshoba County, people I know killed those three men in 1964 because they tried to help black people register to vote and get a decent education. People I know refused to prosecute those murderers for murder. People I know helped the world believe that my hometown is the most hateful, most racist place on earth. Ronald Reagan's visit in 1980 did nothing to dispel that image.
Outside Neshoba County, in Washington, D.C., in Colorado, in New York City, in Massachusetts, people I know have lambasted and ridiculed my hometown, even as they hold their own racist views. Worse, people I know around the country have joined a political party that deliberately panders to the worst racist fears and beliefs. People I know vote for candidates who speak to racists at Bob Jones University and the Council of Conservative Citizens in order to draw racist support for their greedy fiscal policies (or for their racism, whichever shoe fits). People I know in the media have pretended the emperor wears pure, compassionate-conservative clothing, ignoring mountains of evidence that the party now in power in all three branches, the party of Strom has made a deal with the racist devils who collectively killed Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Emmett Till.
Here in Mississippi, we haven't faced our racist past. Most young people here, and way too many older ones, have no idea that Jim Crow was a statewide conspiracy among state and local government, law enforcement, media, the voters, the terrorists of the Klan and the upstanding merchants of the White Citizens Council that fed the Klan Michael Schwerner's license-plate number. Most haven't understood what Dixiecrats stood for. Too many do not comprehend what was wrong with what Trent Lott said at Strom's birthday party. It has long been the fashion to excuse our bigotry by pointing out other people's bigotry. Mississippians like to say it wasn't any worse here than anywhere else. That's wrong, of course. Out there, it has long been the fashion to excuse y'all's bigotry by pointing out that our bigotry was worse, which it was. We led the country in lynchings, bald bigotry, race demagoguery, refusal to prosecute our terrorists. But that doesn't make your racism any more palatable.
As someone who's traveled between the worlds, I've long been frustrated, sometimes to tears, by the whole damned country's refusal to take responsibility for our race history, to admit it, to apologize for it, to make up for it, to use it to teach. Of course, many people try -- but clearly we haven't gotten very far in our understanding. If we had, the country would not, could not, have swept in a political party that built its strength by playing to the cancer of bigotry that has continued to spread in the last 30 years, thanks largely to its embrace by a shameful and shameless Republican Party.
Right now, many Mississippians are banding together to use the better-late-than-never media storm over Trent Lott's race history to try to teach our neighbors that it's OK, imperative, to face our racist demons in an honest way that's never been done. With some luck, the Lott affair could prove the best thing that's happened to this state, and to the country.
But it's not just up to Southerners. It is not enough for Americans to scapegoat this state and this senator. There is no excuse for Lott's despicable pandering, but there is also no excuse for a party to employ such a strategy, or for voters to vote for a party that takes advantage of ignorance and hate for financial and political gain. It's your fault, too, non-Mississippians. And it's certainly the fault of everyone who today calls him- or herself a Republican. Here in my state, we have to change, and so do the rest of you.
Donna Ladd is the editor of the Jackson Free Press (www.jacksonfreepress.com) in Jackson, Miss.