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 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.

Taking Lott 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.

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 history 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.

Contact 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.

Fast forward 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 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 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?

Jorge 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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Issue Number 25
January 16, 2003



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Other commentaries in this issue:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Riverside Church, New York City - 4 April 1967

Armstrong Williams' Big Move - Black Personnel Director for GOP Inc

The Issues
Death takes a (brief) holiday... Mississippi justice goes national... Black Voices for Peace

Draft immunity fuels war machine... BC labeled "right wing"... Mediocre whites cry bias

Commentaries in Issue 24 January 9, 2003:

No Draft, No Peace - Rangel and Conyers are right

The buying of Rev. Dr. Greedygut... More Confederates in GOP closet... It’s a bitch being rich

GOP says Democrats fund loafers... Democrats charge game is rigged... Pacifica station looking for a GM

High Stakes: Black and Latino parents are demanding better schools and fewer tests - By Eric C. Wat

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.