By Rosetta Miller Perry

Bigots of all kinds for decades have long used buzzwords and code phrases to sanitize and justify their language and actions. Richard Nixon talked about “law & order” (as has Donald Trump) to excuse police misconduct and brutality, and make it seem as though public safety was incumbent on how much police could physically punish even demonstrators who weren’t violating any laws. Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens” in an attempt to make his harsh rhetoric against the poor seem as though he was merely speaking up for working people.

Last week it was Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee’s turn to dispense meaningless rhetoric and distort history in an attempt at explaining actions that were clearly racist and sexist. Lee was the sole force blocking two bipartisan proposals to create Smithsonian museums for Latino and women’s history from unanimously passing the Senate. Lee claimed there’s been too much “balkanization” in the country, and added that “the last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation.

Lee blocked proposals to establish the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum, saying that “within the walls of a Smithsonian museum, just like at the National Gallery of Art or the great memorials that dot this city, there is no us and them. There’s only us. And so my objection to the creation of a new Smithsonian museum or series of museums based on group identity, what Theodore Roosevelt called hyphenated Americanism, is not a matter of budgetary or legislative technicalities. It is a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion,” Lee said.

Setting aside the fact that Theodore Roosevelt himself was guilty on multiple occasions of using racist language in the White House and was no friend of Blacks, Native Americans or any other people who weren’t white, the history of those museums he cited is one of exclusion. The primary reason why museums celebrating the heritage and history of most other groups in this country that aren’t white and male are needed is because people like Lee have been running the boards of past museums and participating in selection processes that excluded anyone except a select group of white males for decades.

Supporters of the bipartisan bills to add these museums to the existing Smithsonian Institution collection had hoped to get approval on a voice vote, but as allowed under Senate rules, Lee blocked the bills. Lee’s argument was stories of Latinos and women should be told in the existing American History Museum, and if those histories are “being under appropriated” there, “that is a problem and that’s a problem we should address here.” But that contention ignores the fact the reason these new museums ARE needed is because that problem hasn’t already been corrected. If it had, his statements would have merit.

The even more disgusting part of Lee’s maneuver is the deliberate placement of museums for Blacks and Native Americans as being valid reasons for rejecting those for Latinos and women. He claimed that because these places exist because those groups were “uniquely, deliberately, and systemically excluded” from history. Yet, the same holds true for Latinos and women.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who has been advocating for the National Museum of the American Latino for years, argued: “We have been systematically excluded. Believe me, we have been. And the only righteous way to end that exclusion is to pass this bill.” He added that the Smithsonian has already acknowledged the need for these museums, and that Lee’s action ignores that admission. Menendez, a co-sponsor of the proposal with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, responded by saying “this has been a 20-plus year journey to try and make this museum possible, and one Republican colleague stands in the way. It’s pretty outrageous.”

Lee’s blocking of the Women’s History Museum was also noted by a fellow Republican Senator, Susan Collins of Maine. She responded that this was “a sad moment. I had hoped that we could proceed with both of these bills and pass them before the end of the year. Surely in a year where we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, this is the time, this is the moment to finally pass the legislation unanimously recommended by an independent commission to establish an American Women’s History Museum in our nation’s capital. I regret that will not occur this evening, but we will not give up the fight,” Collins said.

Both bills overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this year.  Yet Lee called them “an array of segregated separate, but equal museums for hyphenated identity groups.” That anyone would label women a hyphenated identity group is beyond absurd, but then racists and sexists employ no logic in their analysis, nor are they fully aware of history. 

This is another example of bigoted and backward legislators holding this nation back. It’s another indicator of how the Republican Party since the late ‘60s has opposed every significant social justice action and progressive step made in this nation. It’s also a big reason why it is critical control of the Senate be taken away from this group. Perhaps that would force its leadership to move into the 21st century, and accept the need for America to both recognize its mistakes, and fairly acknowledge the contributions of all its citizens, regardless of race or gender.