Did Trent Lott's mother, who once publicly recommended that a bullet be put through the head of a local editor who supported integration, raise the future senator to be a bigot? Or was it his favorite uncle, Arnie Watson, a leader of the White Citizens Council -- a more respectable version of the Ku Klux Klan -- who inspired the senator's lifelong love affair with race hate?
Other white Southerners, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, managed a bold break with the evil ways of their elders, but not Lott. After a week of meandering apologia, the best the Senate Republican leader could muster for his recent, but not first, celebration of Strom Thurmond as a representative of the good old days of segregation is that he -- Lott -- is a hapless product of the prevailing racism of his youth: "I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong."
Now know were wrong? "Now," as in last week, when Lott was roundly denounced, even by the president, for views he'd held all his life? Or is it "now" as in this week, when a Republican rival is publicly gunning for his job as Senate majority leader? Or "now" as in his keynote address in 1992 to the neo-segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens, in which he was quoted as saying, "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."
In fact, race-baiting, though generally more subtle than Lott's embrace of Thurmond's 1948 campaign for a segregated nation, is what gave the GOP dominance in the Deep South, and Lott has long been one of its main practitioners. The so-called Southern strategy, given its fullest support by Richard Nixon three decades ago, successfully aimed at recruiting the white racist Dixiecrats who had been uncomfortable with the Democratic Party since President Truman's 1947 order to desegregate the Navy.
When Lyndon Johnson pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Republicans turned their backs on Lincoln and pro-civil rights Republican moderates like Dwight Eisenhower, and became the refuge of eternally aggrieved Southern racists.
Lott was one of those recruits, leaving his job as top aide to a retiring segregationist Democrat and running with his mentor's support and money as a Republican, on Nixon's coattails, in 1972. In Congress, Lott outdid Thurmond himself when it came to being a racial reactionary, opposing establishment of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Lott is above all else a politician, and his playing the race card, while periodically impolitic, has been the consistent subtext of Republican campaigns for decades, even in national races. Recall Lee Atwater's use of the Willie Horton scare endorsed by the elder George Bush in his winning campaign against Michael Dukakis, or the intimidating attacks on black voting in Florida and elsewhere in the 2000 presidential election.
Perhaps with President Bush's belated but forthright condemnation of Lott, this vicious opportunism will be abandoned and the GOP again will become the party of Eisenhower, who used federal troops to enforce school desegregation.
It is interesting to note that prominent African-American Republicans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have ignored Lott's appeals for support in his current crisis.
What Republicans must realize is that despite Lott's various stabs at apology, what he will not concede is that racism -- real, powerful, cancerous -- continues to haunt the nation and that the destruction of the black family, in particular, is the direct consequence of an organized system of slavery and segregation that aimed at destroying not only equal opportunity but the very humanity of black people.
Though nearly every group of immigrants to the United States has been discriminated against to some extent, none arrived en masse in shackles, as African-Americans did. Nor was any other group kept in the bondage of legal segregation for an additional century.
Racial prejudice continues to be the United States' Achilles' heel, yet there has been an increasing denial of the obligation to make good on the country's enduring debt to black people. Even the mildest affirmative action programs are under attack. Perhaps, thanks to Lott's most recent indiscretion, we may begin to more seriously confront the ongoing duty to right racism.