A Utah Republican has blocked bipartisan bills in the US Senate that would establish national museums devoted to the histories of Latinos and women, arguing that such institutions would sow divisive “hyphenated Americanism”.
The move by the senator, Mike Lee, was enough to stymie both bills on Thursday evening because their sponsors were seeking to have them passed by unanimous voice vote. The legislation has been in the works for years, and companion bills to establish each museum were approved by the US House earlier this year.
Lee declared that creating museums celebrating American Latinos and American women would cause strife. “The so-called critical theory undergirding this movement does not celebrate diversity—it weaponizes diversity,” he 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.”
“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation," Lee said.
He said that the histories of Latinos and women should be incorporated into existing Smithsonian museums like the National Museum of American History. He also suggested that Latinos, unlike Native Americans and African Americans—to which separate Smithsonian museums are already devoted—were not subjected to systemic racism.
Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who was a co-sponsor of the Latino bill with Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, countered, "We have been systemically excluded. We, who founded the oldest city in America before there was a United States of America.”
The Friends of the American Latino Museum, which has campaigned for establishing the institution, said in a statement: “We are incredibly disappointed with Senator Mike Lee’s insultingly dismissive, condescending and misguided decision to block our bill.” It added: “Latinos across the nation have waited far too long to be represented on the National Mall, and it is disgustingly cruel to make them wait even longer. Latinos, throughout history, have endured, fortified, and overcome countless obstacles.”
“We stand ready to continue our efforts for this important missing piece of the fabric of our nation,” it said.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is sponsoring the bill to create the women's history museum, said, “I think this is a sad moment.” She lamented that a single senator was able to block both pieces of legislation. “Surely in a year where we are 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,” she said. “I regret that that will not occur this evening, but we will not give up the fight.”
Under the terms of the legislation, the Smithsonian would commence feasibility studies and consider locations for each museum. Half of the financing for each institution would be generated by the federal government and half from private sources.
“Despite Senator Lee's xenophobic fears about the diversity in our nation in his comments last night, we are confident that we can still move this bill forward and will work with members of the House and Senate, from both sides of the aisle, to make the American Latino Museum a reality,” the Friends of the American Latino Museum said today.
Advocates suggest that the best chance at passage may be to insert the Senate bills into omnibus spending legislation that Congress is under pressure to approve before it recesses at the end of next week.