Senator Trent Lott (R. Miss.) has resigned as Senate Majority
Leader, the news cycle has moved on to other issues. But the
Lott Affair ought not to be shoved under the rug so quickly.
For Latinos in particular, the episode raises a number of intriguing
issues. Despite the hoary black/white paradigm that still determines
all discussions about race in the United States, demographic
changes tell us that Latinos will have much at stake in the
on-going economic and racial realignment of American society.
as a symptom of a wider context, what do we know so far? 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' Councils
of the 1950s.
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.
that is unknown to these recent immigrants is also unknown to
most white and African American progressives. During the Viet
Nam War period, people of Mexican descent mounted a multi-faceted
social movement that included a labor sector (Cesar Chavez and
the United Farm Workers), a land redistribution fight in New
Mexico (Reies Tijerina), a political third party, an anti-war
sector, a Chicana feminist agenda, and a wide array of cultural
and political organizations demanding civil rights reform or
revolution and everything in between.
between Chicano and Black activists was often intense. In 1967,
Tijerina began a close relationship with SNCC, the Black Panthers,
and other militant groups. Chicanos participated in the New
Politics Conferences and the Poor People's Campaign. One of
Dr. King's planned stops after visiting striking sanitation
workers in Memphis in April of 1968 was to have been Delano,
California, and a meeting with Cesar Chavez. The meeting never
happened; the spectre of a Brown/Black coalition may have been
one reason why.
to the present. The recent influx of Spanish-speaking workers,
many of them in the lowest echelons of the poultry industry,
has not gone unnoticed by right-wing groups. 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
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.
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 both the Black
and Chicano Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and the coalitions
they produced? Will discrimination in education and housing
and economic inequality in general eventually lead to a new
Mexican American militancy that will rise up this time not in
the Southwest but deep in the heart of Dixie?
Mariscal is an Associate Professor of Literature and Director
of the Chicano/a~Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the
University of California, San Diego.
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