An oblique thought on the Trent Lott affair

Glenn Loury makes an observation on the Trent Lott affair I haven’t heard anyone else make. While Lott was thrashing about madly in an attempt to keep his head above water, he more or less offered to make concessions on various race-related policy issues in return for support from African-Americans and those who identify with their aspirations. That offer was not merely rejected, it was mocked. That seems to Glenn to have been an unwise move, in purely interest-group terms.

That conservatives should have opposed any such deal is obvious. Lott’s stepping down was no great loss to them, and they certainly wouldn’t have wanted to see those concessions made. But why should Lott’s overtures have been rejected with such contempt by most of the black political leadership and its white allies? Was it really so much more important to punish Lott than to secure practical advantage from his misstep?

Even if his proclaimed rebirth as an anti-racist was insincere, he might still have kept whatever deal he made. Now the Republicans have cast all their racist sins onto this scapegoat, and neither he nor his party is left owing African-Americans anything.

UPDATE: A note from a reader:

One prominent black leader did take Trent seriously: Rep. John Lewis.

Lewis, whose civil rights credentials are second to none in terms of heroism, leadership, and moral integrity, accepted Lott’s apologies as sincere, and is apparently going to accompany Lott on a tour of important southern civil rights locales, supposedly in the spring.


Jacob Levy thinks that making a deal for Lott’s survival would have involved a sacrifice of the moral high ground and thus been inadvisable even on practical grounds. I can see both arguments clearly, and don’t have a strong intuition about which ought to be the more convincing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: