January 3, 2003

Commentary

A Chicano Looks at the Trent Lott Affair

By Jorge Mariscal

Now that Senator Trent Lott (R. Miss.) has resigned as Senate Majority Leader, the news cycle has already moved on to other issues. But the Lott Affair ought not to be shoved under the rug so quickly. Despite Lott’s numerous apologies in recent days and his attempts to distance himself from recent remarks about Strom Thurmond and his own past, hais act of contrition seems half-hearted. On Christmas Eve, he claimed he had simply been “trapped by his enemies.”

Lott’s flirtations with the deepest racist elements of Southern culture span his entire adult life. As a student at the University of Mississippi, he led efforts to resist integration of his fraternity. His votes against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and other more substantive civil rights legislation are well-documented. Throughout the 1980s, Lott contributed a regular column to the Citizen Informer, a newsletter published by the Council of Conservative Citizens, and appeared in recruiting videos for an organization called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

It is a little known fact that during the Reagan-Bush retrenchment a Neo-Confederate movement emerged across the Deep South. Lott was a key player and often boasted that Republican Party programs were reviving “the spirit of Jefferson Davis,” the former president of the Confederacy. The Council of Conservative Citizens, known as the “uptown Klan,” was a direct descendant of the radical segregationist White Citizens’s Councils of the 1950s.

What does all this have to do with Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking groups? Over the last decade, Mexican and Latino immigrants have moved in large numbers into the old Confederacy. According to the most recent census, the increase in Latinos between 1990 and 2000 in North Carolina was 393.9%, in Arkansas 323.3%, in Georgia 299.6%, and in Tennessee 278.2%. In Lott’s home state, the number of Latinos more than doubled. Whereas in 1990 only 19 of the state’s 82 counties had 200 or more Latino residents, by 2000 more than half or 48 counties had 200 or more. And these numbers are probably too low given the census bureau’s track record of undercounting Latinos.

From a Chicano perspective, a number of interesting questions arise from these demographic changes. Since most of the new Latinos in the South are first-generation immigrants they have little if any knowledge of the Chicano struggles for equal rights and the history of anti-Mexican racism in the Southwest. As they enter a culture based on black/white relations, these workers are unaware of regional histories, past labor struggles, and the persistence of long-standing “Southern values.” In effect, they are walking into a black/white universe like virtual aliens from another planet.

The influx of Spanish-speaking workers, many of them in the lowest echelons of the poultry industry, has not gone unnoticed. A spokesman for one of Senator Lott’s preferred organizations, the Council of Conservative Citizens, for example, declared in 1998: “The litmus test is where do the politicians stand on immigration and race. If we lose and we cease to exist, the new Mexican majority will not preserve our Confederate flag or our Confederate monuments because our people will be gone.” The level of white fear expressed here by Atlanta attorney Sam Dickson is high, and we can only assume he is not alone in seeing Mexican immigrants and their Mexican American children as a threat to the kind of Southern society Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott continue to promote.

The media coverage of the Lott affair reminds of us of two important facts: 1) the discussion of race in the U.S. is still firmly grounded in a narrow and antiquated black/white reality and 2) despite the Republican Party’s attempt to distance itself from Lott and his ilk it continues to be a party whose electoral victories are totally dependent on the old Confederate core. The civil rights voting record of new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R. Tenn.) on issues affecting Latinos, Blacks, women, and gays is just as bad if not worse than that of Trent Lott.

What all this will mean for the majority of Latinos (leaving aside the extreme pro-Bush elements in Florida’s Cuban community) remains to be seen. How will the legacy of white supremacy in the South affect Mexican immigrants and their children? To what extent will working class Latinos learn the history of Black Civil Rights struggles? Will discrimination in education and housing and economic inequality in general eventually produce a new Chicano Movement that will rise up this time not in the Southwest but deep in the heart of Dixie?

Jorge Mariscal is Director of the Chicano/a~Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.

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