Friday, March 29, 2013

Some Subtle Revisions to the "Southern Strategy" Historiography

As I continue to learn more about the political fallout of the civil rights movement I find that the standard narrative of white racists migrating to the Republican Party needs some subtle adjustment. This corrective is needed not because the popular perception shared by the Republican faithful that theirs is and always was the party of civil rights and racial progressivism has any merit -- it doesn't -- but because casting the story in partisan terms obscures the extent to which white Americans imposed bipartisan constraints on the political possibilities for racial justice.

The sheer incompetence of the modern GOP's efforts to reach out to minorities can obscure the extent to which partisan alignments were in flux for over two decades. The obvious resentment of and indifference to minority concerns of the modern lily-white GOP base makes it easy to overlook that the Democrats made some efforts of their own to capture "The Silent Majority" who wanted their white privilege protected and affirmed.

So, as absurd as the civil rights history is that you tend to get from a Republican partisan, it actually is true that there is a double standard of a sort. How do I know this? I know because if you follow politics you are aware of Nixon's "Southern Strategy," and Reagan's 1980 paean to states rights in the county where three civil rights workers were murdered 16 years before; you know about the Willie Horton ad. But I'm fairly certain you don't know what I'm about to tell you.

Jimmy Carter came out of Georgia. How did a southern Democrat from the deep south make it onto the national stage just a few years after civil rights movement without being tainted by racism, you ask? Well, he didn't. In The South and America Since World War II, James C. Cobb notes that during the campaign Carter appeared onstage with George Wallace (George Wallace!) at a rally in Birmingham and declared, "We southerners believe in work, not welfare." When running for governor, Carter had also stood staunchly against busing to achieve integration.

During the presidential campaign he ran a TV add saying "On November 2, the South is being readmitted to the Union. If that sounds strange, maybe a southerner can understand. Only a southerner can understand what it means to be a political whipping boy. But, then, only a southerner can understand what Jimmy Carter as President can mean."

As I research the career of segregationist Democratic Senator John Stennis, I was surprised to see that as late as 1976, he said this: "Let me just say one thing about this integration. I'm against it, always have been and always will be, but it's a fact. I'm not a fool. It's a fact. It's there." Put more bluntly, he's basically saying he will always believe in white supremacy and only accepts the changes that happened over a decade ago because they're a fait accompli that he cannot roll back. I was more surprised when I found out Stennis said this while at the Biloxi, Mississippi airport to meet Jimmy Carter for a campaign event! Carter said it was "a great honor" to campaign with a "statesman...committed to absolute integrity" like Stennis.

All of these things, the campaign events with segregationists, the racial dog whistles about welfare, would be well-known parts of the Republican Southern Strategy narrative, this case Republicans didn't do them! There is the double standard. Nonetheless, it's not much to get worked up about, for at least two reasons. First, Carter governed differently from how he campaigned. Reagan, by contrast, backed up racial campaign appeals with real policy: savage spending cuts to urban areas, defense of segregated private schools, and only grudgingly renewing the Voting Rights Act under pressure. Second, we know the end of the story. In a sense, relative to the culture in which it resides, the Republican Party in 2013 is more hostile to minorities than it has ever been. At least back in the 1970s there were still factions of the party opposed to becoming an essentially white movement.

But this is no cause for Democratic gloating. Indeed, the rightward turn of the Republican Party can easily blind us to the extent of bipartisan opposition to creating an equal opportunity society. For example, during the height of the busing controversies in the early 1970s, a poll showed 98% of whites opposed to it. You don't like busing? Ok, well what do you suggest? I don't see you recommending that your nice suburban neighborhood with spacious lawns change its zoning laws so some low-income housing can be built.

If you oppose difficult efforts like busing on the one hand, and actual policies that would integrate neighborhoods on the other, you leave no plausible way to integrate schools. In effect you support Plessy v Ferguson. A favorite tactic is to couch opposition to opportunity-creating policies in terms of class and crime instead of race. You can go ahead and do that, but it's not as if it is any less sinful to withhold good from your neighbor because he is poor than because he is black or brown (why yes, that was a deliberate echo of Proverbs 3:27). There is a bipartisan consensus around the idea that the creation and maintenance of these middle-to-high income suburban enclaves has nothing to do with the deprivation of opportunity just a few miles away in a city center. In reality they're opposite sides of the same coin, minted together.

The possession of privilege is not a mark against anyone. It can come to us unbidden. But the attempt to erect barriers of exclusion around that privilege is at once the fundamental feature of American politics and the essence of an unchristian life.

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