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Political Animal

Look Again

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/1/2003

Just recently Animal Control received an e-mail from a reader. "How about the same type of expose on Robert Byrd as you've given us on Trent Lott," he wrote. "Now that would be interesting." And exactly why this would be interesting would be an even better question.

We can already see the motive behind the reader's query. What with the current "are you now, or have you ever been sympathetic to the Confederacy" inquiry going on (although now that Lott has stepped down as Senate Majority Leader, the issue could fall off the radar), it might seem to be a pertinent question.

Byrd is no altar boy when it comes to the issue of race. He is the Senate's most famous ex-Ku Klux Klansman--although the National Journal's Almanac of American Politics states that he "quickly quit and has ever since regretted joining." He was clearly not a proponent of the civil-rights movement back in the 1960s--but he supported the more liberal Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 West Virginia primary over John F. Kennedy. He used what we now call "the n-word" during a interview on the Fox News Channel in 2001--although he was referring to white people at the time.

Michelle Malkin, a conservative black female syndicated columnist (now there's a mouthful) wrote after the Fox incident, "If this ex-Klansman were a conservative Republican, he would never hear the end of his sordid past. 'Ex-Klansman who opposed civil rights and black justices' would appear in every reference to Sen. Byrd." Well, close but not quite.

Want to know why Byrd didn't, and hasn't, gotten the treatment Lott got? It comes down to one word: intent.

Unlike Lott, Byrd hasn't made it a point to vote against nearly every piece of legislation that might help black people. Unlike Lott, Byrd hasn't made it a crusade to put closet bigots on the federal bench. Unlike Lott, Byrd hasn't given incendiary interviews filled with code words to neo-Confederate magazines run by closet Klansmen.

Words matter, but deeds count even more. And the fact is, Lott made it very clear, code words or not, where he stood and where he stands on the issue of race. Byrd was using a vulgar epithet commonly and historically used against black people against his own. We may cringe at the use of the word, but we also must take into account the circumstances behind its use.

The funny thing about that Malkin's column is that, to buttress her argument, she says Byrd "also opposed the nominations of the Supreme Court's two black justices, liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservative Clarence Thomas." If anything, this shows the progression of Byrd's behavior over the years. It's evident that Byrd was no civil-rights pioneer back when Marshall was nominated to the high court, but to many black people, it's no mark of shame to be on record opposing the Thomas nomination. Up until last month, it wasn't clear that Clarence Thomas ever had a moment in his life that would cause him to hear a case with respect to the fact that African-Americans faced discrimination and intimidation in this country. Then suddenly, as Slate.com's Dahlia Lithwick reported, "Out of nowhere booms the great, surprising 'Luke-I-am-your-father' voice of He Who Never Speaks." During oral argument on a case regarding cross-burning as speech, Thomas opined: "This was a reign of terror, and the cross was a sign of that. . . . is unlike any symbol in our society. It was intended to cause fear, terrorize."

It took long enough, but even Clarence Thomas gets it--deeds speak louder than words.

This isn't to argue that voting against affirmative action is racist--it's not--although some would argue (this columnist included) that affirmative action is still necessary in an era where there is still systematic discrimination against minorities in hiring, in job retention, in job promotion, in housing, in access to capital--the list goes on. The argument can still be made (although we never really get to hear it much) that affirmative action is not reverse discrimination, no matter how much conservatives (and those neo-Confederates hiding within their ranks) make the argument for a "color-blind society."

It all comes down to intent. This writer, about whom it has been alleged has a sense of humor (and a pretty good one, he would argue), has been told many a joke containing the infamous "n-word." Some of them were even funny.

But here's the catch: If the joke teller is a familiar person--a friend, a colleague, a relative--then it's fairly easy to guess the intent of the person telling the joke. It's to get a laugh.

If, however, the joke teller is a stranger, one who may have motives beyond that of merely getting a laugh, darker overtones creep in. Is it a put-down? Is it a threat? Is it a hint at the teller's true nature?

In some ways, it would be nice if we all had the equivalent of an easily accessible list of votes we had made on the state and status of minorities in America. But we don't. Prejudice is an insidious thing, and it hides in plain sight. But with our elected officials, we know them by their deeds as well as their words. If you think one simple phrase or action makes one a racist, look again.

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