The Lott issue
On the occasion of a long-time colleague’s hundredth birthday Trent Lott paid a compliment that suggested that Federally-mandated integration had been a mistake, and that some other way forward that preserved racial separation or at least the legality of voluntary separation would have been better. The response of many people, including some prominent in the conservative movement, was that Lott had thereby shown himself unfit for public office.
Does that make sense? The response to Lott’s comment suggests that integration and color-blindness are the most rightwing ideals now thought legitimate. Nonetheless, those ideals aim to eradicate something basic in human social organization and so are more utopian than conservative. Races exist today, as they existed in 1948 and long before, as human realities. Even if they are viewed simply as social constructions each involves a publicly-recognizable complex of memories, habits, attitudes and loyalties that creates ties among members and distinctions from non-members. Those ties and distinctions provide the setting for much of the particular culture by which people live. As such, they serve a practical function that can’t easily be replaced.
For example, organizational “diversity” is now said to be a “challenge.” What that means is that it’s easier to get people to trust each other and work together if they have the common habits, attitudes and commitments that promote such things. Those habits, attitudes and commitments develop most easily through long life in common. The consequence is that on the whole people are likely to get along more happily and productively if they have a common background — including specifically a common ethnic background. If you want to build solidarity for the sake of a common undertaking it’s helpful to start with a deeply-rooted solidarity that already exists.
Why does willingness to recognize and accept such realities mean that someone is motivated by simple hatred? It’s far from obvious that the attempt to abolish race as a legitimate social reality has been beneficial, even for blacks. After all, abolishing race as a category deprives people of ethnic belonging as a setting for cultural standards. That’s not likely to help anyone solve his problems. The economic standing of blacks compared to whites has advanced somewhat since the civil rights revolution, but it was advancing faster previously. And the statistics for black illegitimacy, crime and incarceration show that the attempt to abolish race as anything but a card to be played in the blame game has in fact been followed by serious cultural disorders among blacks. Could the one have contributed to the other?
Naturally, I am also concerned about people who aren’t black. So I should say that in the larger society the attempt to abolish race as a legitimate social category has led to endless lying, and to the destruction of social, cultural and academic standards. After all, if race is an illegitimate category based solely on hatred that must be deprived of all effect, then any standard that puts blacks at a disadvantage is also illegitimate. All differences have to be denied, explained away, or blamed on the white majority. The whole history of America becomes polluted, since all Americans until recently have recognized the social relevance of race and acted on the recognition.
And for what? At best, for a society in which race and other personal characteristics like sex and religion don’t matter, a society in which we are judged and rewarded by what we do determined by objective standards that come out of no particular culture and so reflect only economics and rational bureaucratic goals. In a word, for a soulless universal technocracy.
If that’s what’s on offer, I don’t want it. The attitudes toward race that treat Trent Lott as an instant pariah are quite recent.
They express not fundamental decency but the postwar liberalism that led to the catastrophe of the 60s. They are inhuman because
they require the abolition of the particular connections and loyalties that provide the necessary setting for culture, and rejecting them is
a necessity for any politics that offers hope for the future.