The U.S. Capital building and the Smithsonian "Castle" headquarters building from the National Mall in DC. (photo by David Brossard via Flickr)

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah blocked bipartisan legislation to establish two new Smithsonian museums dedicated to Latino Americans and American women on the grounds that they would divide the country based on race and gender.

“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups,” Lee said in a Senate session last night. “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.”

“We’ve seen in recent years what happens when we indulge the cultural and identity Balkanization of our national community,” Lee added later. “It weaponizes diversity.”

Lee’s invocation of the term “separate but equal” — the outdated, racist 19th-century legal doctrine establishing that racial segregation does not preclude equal opportunity — has drawn ire on social media. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s 14th District, who is Puerto Rican, took to Twitter to criticize Lee for pushing back against the legislation as an urgent COVID-19 relief bill remains stalled.

The National Museum of the American Latino Act (H.R.2420) passed the House of Representatives by a unanimous vote this summer, with more than 290 bipartisan cosponsors. The Senate Rules Committee also approved the legislation. The Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act (H.R.1980) won bipartisan support in the House in February, passing in a 374-37 vote.

If passed in the Senate, they would create the first national institutions dedicated to documenting and sharing the two groups’ contributions and histories, a move many see as long overdue.

Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for the museum since the bill was first introduced, described Lee’s move to block the legislation as “shameful.”

“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,” the group said in a statement.

Lee’s comments drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a longtime advocate of the American Latino museum, called the move “pretty outrageous.”

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who introduced legislation for the women’s history museum, echoed the sentiment, saying it was “a sad moment.”

“I could not help but wonder as I heard the comments of my colleague from Utah whether he also tried to block the museum celebrating and telling the history of African Americans,” said Collins, referring to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, established in 2003. A Smithsonian museum dedicated to Native American contributions, the National Museum of the American Indian, was established in 1989.

“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,” Collins said.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...