Can we be honest?

Despite the "shock" certain black folks profess to feel when racism arises, the fact is we are seldom deeply surprised.

Yes, we feel the jolt -- that initial, head-jerking "Huh?" that hits every human being when what we see as divine order slides out of whack. When our bodies rebel, our friends abandon us or our careers flounder, our reaction is similar to that of black job hunters when prospective employers -- so encouraging on the phone -- recoil upon meeting them:

Utter disbelief.

Then, black folks get over it. Because we expect racism. Most of us are ready, waiting and, on some level, prepared for its appearance -- which doesn't make it hurt less. Years of exposure to it have made us used to its presence.

So used to it, that what really surprises us is its absence.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the once and presumably next majority leader, rarely surprises us. I'm amused by reports that Lott "stunned" America by braying at a 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond that his state remains "proud" of having supported Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid on a segregationist platform. "If the rest of the country had followed our lead," he added, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

Black folks aren't astonished.

We don't wonder, "What problems could Trent be referring to?" We don't search for deeper, hidden meanings from a guy who has welcomed to Washington leaders of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that promotes the preservation of the white race and whose Web site has warned that America is becoming a "slimy brown mass of glop."

When Lott claimed ignorance of what the group stood for, his own uncle -- a CCC director -- contradicted him. Pictured in a 1992 newsletter, Lott was quoted as telling the group's national board: "The people in this room stand for the right principles."

What did Lott mean at Thurmond's shindig? He meant what he said. Meant it so much that it took him days to amend his dismissive explanation that, caught up in Thurmond's "lighthearted celebration," he had merely endorsed "the man and his life."

Even conservatives had to point out that Lott's party statement actually was "a direct endorsement of Thurmond's positions 50 years ago," as Stephen F. Hayes wrote in the Weekly Standard.

Lott's second, obviously forced "apology": "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past."

He apologized for his statement "to anyone who was offended by it."

A poor choice of words? What better ones would describe pride in having supported a platform based on race-based hatred and division? Discarded policies? As if Jim Crow wasn't a deadly, wrongheaded affront but an abandoned fashion choice, like last season's bell-bottoms.

Hounded to do better, Lott was by Wednesday calling his words "terrible" and "insensitive."

Now I've often admitted sympathy for those whose slips of the tongue seem to be, well, slips. Who hasn't blurted out something he or she didn't mean? It's hypocritical, pretending every utterance has the weight of truth.

Maybe that inspired outgoing Majority Leader Tom Daschle's bland, apology-accepted response to Lott's gaffe. Criticized, he jumped on the revelation that Lott said the same darn thing 20 years ago. "Profoundly" disturbed, the South Dakota Democrat asked: If Lott wasn't endorsing segregation, what was he endorsing?

States' rights and a strong military, Tom!

But we're being honest. So let's admit that honest discussions of racism's reality are complex. They often involve nuance and subtlety, both of which are anathema in politics.

They acknowledge that decent people of every shade harbor feelings -- sometimes momentarily, sometimes for a lifetime -- that would be characterized as bigoted, intolerant and, yes, racist were they spoken aloud.

Racism isn't what we pretend it is: a rare phenomenon that invariably pits stupid, small-minded people against intelligent, upright ones. Our pretense that people belong entirely to one group or the other denies the gray area.

Human life is a festival of gray.

In that grayness, we know that we all feel things we could never admit. Things we're working on, things that we pray liquor, lust or a "lighthearted celebration" won't loosen our tongues to reveal. Especially if we're politicians -- and who isn't?

Fifty half-baked apologies won't change what Lott's words, voting record and CCC relationship suggest. As an American who found his words offensive, I know exactly what kind of apology he should make, one that might make me and countless others reconsider our feeling that Trent Lott should kiss the majority leadership goodbye:

"I grew up in the segregationist South," he'd begin. "People I loved and respected taught me to embrace a philosophy that was and is hateful and God-denying. I haven't wholly shaken free from it. But I'm trying, and ask your forbearance."

Honest? Maybe not. Acceptable to partisans and pundits? Hardly.

But it would be shocking.