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The Role Race Plays in US Politics - 2002-12-21


U.S. Republicans are relieved following the decision by Senator Trent Lott to step down as leader of Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Senator Lott was not able to survive a firestorm of criticism, after he said earlier this month that the country would have been better off had segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond won the 1948 presidential election. The Lott controversy is but the latest example of how race remains a crucial factor in American politics.

Historians and political experts say the furor over Trent Lott is proof yet again of the enduring importance of race in U.S. politics.

It always has been, and continues to be an issue that overhangs everything else we do politically, morally, culturally, economically in this country," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at the American University in Washington D.C. "It was race, of course, that led to the catastrophe of the Civil War that shaped American politics for decades thereafter. It was race that led to the greatest transforming movement of the second half of the 20th century, the American civil rights movement. And it is race more than anything else that differentiates our politics today. If you were to pick any issue that divided Republicans and Democrats, it would be race."

Those differences were especially sharp in the 1960s, during the great congressional debates over civil rights legislation.

Trent Lott reopened some of those old wounds earlier this month, when he said the country would have been better off had retiring Senator Strom Thurmond won the 1948 presidential election. Mr. Thurmond ran on a platform of racial segregation in 1948, but later moderated his views on race.

The Lott comments became a huge distraction for the Bush White House and for Republican lawmakers, who had hoped to use their gains in the November congressional elections to trumpet a conservative agenda focusing on a range of domestic issues, including additional tax cuts.

Tennessee's incoming Republican Senator, Lamar Alexander, was among those expressing relief at Senator Lott's decision to give up his leadership post.

"I commend him for his leadership, and for his willingness to put the Republican Party's future, and his country's future, ahead of him," he said.

Many Republicans are worried that the Lott controversy will hurt their efforts to reach out to non-white voters in future elections, especially Hispanic-Americans.

"The Republicans in the Senate, and some Republicans in general, are looking at the nation's demographics; and one of the things they are seeing is, not so much a larger African-American community, but a much larger Hispanic community," said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. "If the Republicans get the perception that they are not very hospitable to minority groups, to those who need a little bit more help, then it is going to be very difficult for them to become a plurality, or even a majority party in the future. So, this is not only about the past. It is about the future of the Republican Party."

Republicans have won more white votes than Democrats in each of the last nine presidential elections.

On the other hand, Democrats have steadily increased their share of the black vote, now winning between 80 and 90 percent of African-American votes in presidential elections. Democrats have also done better with Hispanic voters, though President Bush did win 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 election.

Republicans realize that they will have to broaden their appeal to non-white voters in the years ahead, especially Hispanics. The Census Bureau estimates that whites will no longer be a majority of the U.S. population by the middle of this century.