When Politicians Fraternize With White Supremacists

By Farai Chideya
USA Today - Opinion
March 2, 1999

With the impeachment drama finally over, Americans have a chance to reflect on the nature of modern-day morality. But the sexual inquiries that have dogged Republicans and Democrats alike shouldn't be the only issue on our minds.

The media didn't invent the Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky matters, but the constant drumbeat of media coverage kept the stories alive.

Why, then, has another story died so quickly: the ties of key politicians to white supremacist organizations?

By now, many Americans know that Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., have ties to a segregationist organization called the Council of Conservative Citizens. All three of these leaders are Republicans, but the head of the organization claims that 34 Democratic members of the Mississippi legislature belong to the CCC.

Barr, Helms and Lott - all of whom have delivered speeches to this stunningly racist organization - have disavowed any support for the group. Maybe. But Lott's links in particular go back a decade or more, and include speaking engagements and meeting with the group's officials in Washington. There has been a small flurry of stories and opinion articles, but the political fallout pales in comparison to that of the Washington sex scandals.

Lott's easy escape from moral accountability was one of many things that popped into my mind one recent Monday morning.

It was the first day of a three-week tour to promote my new book on America's racial future. I was on my way to give a speech at the Medill School of Journalism, and I needed to go to Newark Airport. The cabby who picked me up not only refused to take me there, but also called me a "mother-(expletive) cheap nigger'' when I refused to pay the $2.60 on the meter for the honor of being driven four blocks from my house.

If anything, I felt an odd sense of privilege when this incident happened. I'm the kind of person who knew to get his license number and write a letter to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. I was thankful that, unlike some African-Americans, I hadn't heard this kind of slur from a neighbor, co-worker or assailant, nor had race curtailed my education or career.

Last week, America's eyes were on the trial in Jasper, Texas, where alleged white supremacists dragged a black man to death behind a truck.

But for every racial incident, there are far more black families left out of America's prosperity, something the Rev. Jesse Jackson seeks to address through a "fourth phase" civil rights movement.

Small incidents like my taxi confrontation and big tragedies like the death in Jasper are, of course, caused by specific individuals. But I believe the actions of some prominent Americans let others think that blatant racism is still acceptable.

Those who aimed to impeach the president avowed that political leaders set the moral tone for the country. If so, those leaders entangled with groups like the CCC have a lot of explaining to do. It is not enough for them to quickly disavow a group this hateful. The CCC, which is anti-immigrant and anti-integration, states (as might be expected) that whites are superior to blacks.

But the position I found most interesting was its fear that the white race in America was becoming extinct. Its chief columnist, H. Millard, calls interracial relationships "genocide via the bedroom chamber" for white Americans, and he compares this to the Holocaust.

The reality of the matter is that America is becoming far more racially mixed. In 50 years, this country will be less than half white. Some of these Americans will be racially mixed, but most of them will be black, Latino, Asian or Native American. The idea of a "majority-minority'' America is the nightmare of groups like the CCC that envision this future America as a "slimy brown mass of glop.''

The group's arguments aren't subtle, and its leaders claim their group isn't small. The CCC boasts 15,000 members; Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice has spoken to the group. I strongly believe politicians and leaders who fraternize with white supremacists give permission for others to act out their racist fantasies.

I think not only of Jasper, but also about what happened to a couple I interviewed for my book.

Bubba and Jaime Johnson, an interracial couple in Thomasville, Ga., buried their dead infant in her family's all-white church cemetery. The deacons of the church - who were not removed or censured - asked that the body of this "half-breed" be dug up. The deacons were able to escape moral accountability in their small town, just as some Washington leaders are able to escape accountability in the national arena.

These racial disputes are about nothing less than American identity.

Are we a country that judges people on the content of their character, or are we willing to agree with those who are claiming the only true Americans are those with pale skin?

It seems ludicrous that we are still debating these issues at the turn of the millennium. But the actions of some on Capitol Hill indicate we have a long way to go before we can comfortably accept America's increasing diversity. It is critical for us to apply the calls for moral and political accountability in Washington to issues of race as well.

Journalist Farai Chideya's new book is The Color of Our Future.

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