A single Republican senator blocked bipartisan legislation Thursday to create Smithsonian museums for American Latinos and women, claiming such institutions would "further divide" the nation. The senator also suggested that Latino Americans hadn't faced the same kind of systematic exclusion as other ethnic groups that already have Smithsonian museums.
"The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation within an array of separate but equal museums of hyphenated identity groups," Senator Mike Lee of Utah said in remarks opposing the bill for the Latino museum. "At this moment, in the history of our diverse nation, we need our federal government and the Smithsonian Institution itself to pull us closer together and not further apart."
The House this year passed bills to create the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women's History Museum, each with more than 290 cosponsors. The Senate hoped to approve the measures by a unanimous voice vote, an expedited process for bills not expected to be controversial. Lee's opposition blocks the bill for the current congressional term and will likely complicate efforts to pass them in the future.
Lee, who is White, said he took issue with federal tax dollars being used for the museums, which would also be supported with private funds. He argued that the stories of America's women and Latinos should instead be part of the National Museum of American History. He also dismissed the calls for more identity-based representation as a form of "cultural and identity balkanization."
"The so-called critical theory undergirding this movement does not celebrate diversity, it weaponizes diversity," Lee said. "It sharpens all those hyphens into so many knives and daggers. It has turned our college campuses into grievance pageants and loose Orwellian mobs to cancel anyone daring to express an original thought."
There are already separate Smithsonian museums for African-Americans and Native Americans. Lee seemed to suggest that Latinos hadn't faced the same kind of persecution that justified those museums.
"African-Americans and American Indians have a unique place in that story, in that they were rather uniquely, deliberately, systematically excluded from it," he said. "Unlike many other groups, they were persecuted and they were essentially written out of our national story."
"It's therefore uniquely appropriate that the federal government provide the funding to recover and tell those communities' specific stories today," Lee added.
"We have been systemically excluded," Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat supporting the bill, retorted. He noted the historic exploitation of Latinos as farm workers and members of the armed forces.
"Believe me, we have been. And the only righteous way to end that exclusion is to pass this bill."
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, co-sponsored the bill with Menendez.
In a separate debate, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, pushed to approve legislation to create a Smithsonian museum for women's history. Lee was again the only senator saying no.
"This is a sad moment," Collins said.
"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."
The Smithsonian Institution in 1994 issued a report called "Willful Neglect" that explicitly acknowledged it was overlooking the contributions of Latinos.
"The Institution almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operations," the report said, adding that a task force "could not identify a single area of Smithsonian operations in which Latinos are appropriately represented."
Menendez on Thursday emphasized the decades-long effort to improve Latino representation in the Smithsonian.
"This has been a 20-plus year journey to try and make this museum possible, and one Republican colleague stands in the way," he said. "It's pretty outrageous."