The push to create two new museums in D.C. honoring the contributions of Latinos and women in American history has been nearly two decades in the making and, on Thursday, appeared on the cusp of becoming a reality. The groundwork had been laid, bipartisan bills had passed overwhelmingly in the House that authorized the museums’ creation under the auspices of the Smithsonian. But when Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey moved to advance the Latino museum by unanimous consent Thursday evening, a legislative method used to expedite uncontroversial measures, a single Republican senator—Mike Lee of Utah—stepped in and blew the whole thing up. The white male senator said he opposed the creation of “separate but equal museums for hyphenated identity groups.”
“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’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion,” Lee explained. “At the end of such a fraying and fracturing year, Congress should not splinter one of the national institutional cornerstones of our distinct national identity.” Lee said that instead of distinct museums, both should be better incorporated into existing Smithsonian institutions. “[Latino] stories are our stories, and they are stories that emphatically should be told by the Smithsonian Institution at the Museum of American History. Period. No hyphen,” Lee continued. “The so-called critical theory undergirding this movement does not celebrate diversity; it weaponizes diversity. … It sharpens all those hyphens into so many knives and daggers.”
“Generations of Latino Americans have shaped our country as it is today, but as I suggested a moment ago, many Americans simply aren’t aware of the vast contributions made by these men and women who have come before us, and one critical way we can right this wrong is by providing a home for their stories in the nation’s capital,” Cornyn said in support of the museum. “Sixty million Latinos in this country are watching tonight because this is a much-expected moment,” Menendez responded to Lee. “Univision, Telemundo, affiliates across the country, national organizations and others have been waiting for this moment—a moment that everybody in the Congress of the United States agrees to, except for one colleague.”
Shortly after that one colleague scuttled the Latino museum, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine introduced her bill to establish a Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. “I can think of no better way to tell the story of American women, to inspire those young girls and young boys who come to Washington to tour all the wonderful museums that are part of the Smithsonian, than to create a museum of American women’s history so that they can better understand the contributions of American women to the development of our nation and its proud history,” Collins said.
Lee blocked Collins’ bill too, offering no further explanation.