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Rubbing elbows with racists

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make any noise? If something happens and it has nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky, will the media pay any attention?

You needed to be a news junkie with a good eye to spot the stories about Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Rep. Bob Barr speaking to a white supremacist organization, the Council of Conservative Citizens. This council is a direct outgrowth of the old white "Citizens Councils" that were active during the civil rights movement _ same officers in both groups, same segregationist attitudes. The group opposes interracial marriage and immigration, and at least some of its members believe that all non-European Americans should be deported to the Third World.

This fun bunch has been banned from the Conservative Political Action Conference. David Keene, the head of CPAC, told the Washington Post, "We kicked them out of CPAC because they are racists."

When the issue of Barr speaking to this outfit was first raised in a complaint by Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, Barr promptly announced that when he spoke to the group in June, he had no idea it was a white supremacist group _ not a clue. And furthermore, said Barr, Dershowitz's complaint was just an effort to draw attention away from the all-important Lewinsky mess.

Politicians often do speak to groups they don't know much about, so one can hardly hold them responsible for the views of the National Grouters Association or the Duck Council of America. But the Post, taking a rare break from the all-consuming Lewinsky affair, went and dug up evidence that Barr must have known who these folks were.

Gordon Lee Baum, chief executive of the council, said: "He knew all about us before he spoke to us." Baum said Barr has been given copies of the council's magazine, which is racist.

In addition, before Barr spoke at the group's meeting in Charleston, S.C., he sat through a panel discussion during which the panelists made their racial views clear.

Lott's denials were just as trustworthy as Barr's. He first claimed to have "no firsthand knowledge" of the Council of Conservative Citizens or its views. Yet when he gave the keynote address at the group's 1992 meeting in Greenwood, Miss., Lott told members that they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."

Lott also appeared in 1991 and 1995 at the quadrennial Black Hawk political rally, co-sponsored by the CCC and the Black Hawk Bus Association, which provides transportation for the private Carroll Academy, according to another Post article by Thomas Edsall. The council used Lott's endorsement in a 1995 mailer and was using a picture of him meeting with the group's officers as late as 1997. The council's Citizen Informer newsletter carries Lott's syndicated column.

In the spirit of seasonal joy, the New York Times dug up a 1984 speech by Lott to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in which he observed: "I think a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party. From tax policy, to foreign policy, from individual rights to neighborhood security are things that Jefferson Davis and his people believed in."

I especially like the part about individual rights.

I was talking to Stanley Crouch, a black conservative who believes that "racism" has been used as a red herring so often that it has almost no effect at all. As Crouch points out, some blacks who had been stealing from programs designed to help the poor would cry "racism" when they were caught. I assured Crouch that we still have high standards for racism in Texas _ the incident in Jasper, for example.

Making a speech for a racist group doesn't necessarily mean that one is a racist. But if you want to figure out if something that someone has done or said really is racist, try reversing the colors involved.

Suppose that Rep. John Conyers or even Sen. Ted Kennedy had gone to a meeting of Louis Farrakhan's outfit, the Nation of Islam, and announced: "The people in this room stand for the right principles and right philosophy." You think there wouldn't be an outcry?

I sometimes think we have reached the same point on race that we did toward the end of the Vietnam War, when concerned hostesses would cry out, "Oh, let's not spoil the party by talking about Vietnam!" We're tired of racism, and we look for ways to dismiss the eternal drizzle of incidents like this as of no great consequence. Except, of course, for those of us whose skin color makes it impossible to get through a single day without being reminded that blacks are treated differently.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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