The Southern Strategy Goes Down Swinging

A vandalized sign outside the office of Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., is shown Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 in Smyrna, Ga. Scott had a contentious community meeting on health care last week. Scott, who is black, said the swastika is the latest example of what he believes is an increasingly hateful and racist debate over reforming health care. The Atlanta lawmaker said he also has received mail in recent days that used N-word references to him, and that characterized President Barack Obama as a Marxist. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)David Scott, a moderate black Democratic congressman from Georgia, has been getting hate mail laced with swastikas the n-word.  Recently, a Swastika was painted on the sign outside of his office after a contentious public meeting in Smyrna, Georgia. 

In a New York Times column, Gail Collins documents recent cases of anti-health care reform protesters packing heat at contentious town hall meetings. 

While CNN personality Lou Dobbs lends credence to the idea that Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen, health-care protesters (aided and abetted by reputedly sane politicians like Chuck Grassley) have been darkly hinting that reformers, given their way, would end up euthanizing seniors.

Lubbock County Judge Tom Head sees nothing racist about the anti-Obama articles he has been posting on a courthouse bulletin board.  According to the Dallas Morning News, “One display included arrest photos of nine people wearing Obama shirts, seven of them black men. Displayed with the photos were printouts critical of Obama supporters and suggesting that backers of former Republican presidents generally don’t get arrested.”  Head didn’t see why an elected official shouldn’t use public property to display his partisan opinions.  He posted the material, he explained, because he wanted to encourage constructive dialogue with those who might not share his views.

The Skip Gates affair revealed a deep perception gap between white and black Americans.  According to a CNN poll, “Fifty-two percent of Americans feel racism among police officers is common, with 44 percent saying it’s rare. Whites are split on that question, with 86 percent of black respondents feeling racism among police offices is common.  Two-thirds of whites say that a white homeowner would have been arrested for the same behavior. Only a quarter of blacks agree.”

What lies at the heart of this rage and fury? 

The death throws of the Southern Strategy.

In 1968, Richard Nixon was informed by his advisers that he could build a powerful conservative coalition by luring southern whites into the Republican fold.  The trick was to ignore the race issue altogether.  Lee Atwater spelled it out in a 1981 interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites . . . If it is getting that abstract, and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Moderate conservatives like David Brooks deny that a Southern Strategy explains the success of politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George and George W. Bush.  But getting the moderates to play along was always part of the game.  So long as blatantly racist references were eliminated from the conservative political lexicon, bright but racially insensitive whites like David Brooks didn’t have to face the ugly truth.  In fact, principled social conservatives and pro-business and pro-military conservatives clung to the hope that the Old South was rapidly morphing into an egalitarian New South. 

There may be some basis to this hope in states like North Carolina and Georgia that have been altered by high levels of Yankee in-migration; but in the Deep South, civil rights resentment burns hot forty-five years after the voting rights bill. 

This big-tent coalition of conservatives controlled American politics from 1968, when Richard Nixon rode to power with a law-n-order message, to 2008, when Barack Obama won the white house by combining moderate politics with a massive turnout of minority voters in swing states. 

During this forty year conservative hegemony only two southern governors were able to capture the White House for the blue team.  Jimmy Carter owed his election to America’s brief moral nausea over Watergate and was kicked to the curb as soon as the nation’s digestion improved.  Bill Clinton clung to power by stealing a few key pages from the Republican playbook.  

During this forty-year stretch, southern distinctiveness was only apparent to those who studied the death penalty and incarceration statistics.  White folks close to the levers of power easily convinced themselves that the South was gradually embracing the fruits of the civil rights movement.  Racially sensitive Republicans occasionally wondered why socially conservative black and Hispanic voters pulled the Democratic lever when the Republicans were so much closer to their views on important issues.  

The reason was fairly simple.  Blacks and Latinos were only welcome in the Republican fold if they agreed to ignore American history, sing the praises of a post-racial society and argue that civil rights legislation was the enemy of self-reliance.

There are plenty of American conservatives who are perfectly willing to play along with a pragmatic Democratic president.  They made their peace with Clinton and they can live with Obama too . . . at least until the next election cycle.  But moderates, both conservative and liberal, have overlooked on salient fact: there is no place in the moral vision of the Deep South for a black president. 

The South was willing to tolerate a gradual evolution toward pluralism so long as white folks remained in charge and socially savvy southern politicians were injecting southern ingredients into the political sausage-making process. 

All that changed with the election of Barack Hussein Obama.

The craziness began to emerge during the presidential election.  John McCain was repeatedly baffled by the roiling hate at his campaign rallies.  Since the election the hostility has been steadily growing. 

“Birther” and “deather” fantasies aren’t simply mistaken; they are pathological.  We are dealing with folks in the throws of a cognitive dissonance so profound they don’t know what to do with themselves.  Conservative politicians like the exuberance but don’t know what to do with all the flagrant irrationality.  Some are fanning the flames.  Others, like George Voinovich of Ohio, are distancing themselves from the southern element of their party.  And then there are folks like Chuck Grassley who try to meet the rabid folk half way.

Do all white Southerners resent the civil rights movement and the election of America’s first black president?  Of course not.  But the folks in control of the southern political machine survive by factoring anti-civil rights extremists into the political equation.  When Lindsey Graham told Sonia Sotomayor that she would be confirmed he was signalling a willingness to live with a new reality.  Several other prominent Republicans have followed suit.  But can southern politicians, at the state or national level, survive if they stand up to the anti-civil rights zealots?  Graham obviously thinks he can. 

And I am not suggesting that anti-civil rights resentment is confined to the South.  The big-tent conservatism that dominated American politics for four decades succeeded by to manipulating white resentment, by turnihg “civil rights” into a synonym for welfare, whining, and class warfare. 

Ronald Reagan didn’t randomly select Neshoba County in Mississippi (remember Mississippi Burning?) as the launching pad for his election campaign.  It was dog-whistle code for those with ears to hear.  Nice conservatives like David Brooks didn’t hear the call, but they weren’t supposed to. 

The Republicans controlled American politics by nationalizing a de-racialized species of civil rights resentment.  In some corners of America the civil rights revolution rolled majestically on; but way down deep, the never-in-a-thousand-years boys were always in the game.  They never came close to full control, mind you; but they could live with that as long as they were on the winning team.

Liberals don’t know how to respond to the current round of irrational myth making.  During the Henry Louis Gates affair, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow invited Tricia Rose, Africana Chair and Professor at Brown University, onto her show to assess the president’s beer diplomacy.  Was the happy-hour summit “a teachable moment” for America as the president was suggesting?

Certainly not, the erudite black scholar answered.  Obama was right when he said the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Dr. Gates, but he should have kept his opinion to himself.  Messy stories like the Gates-Crowley imbroglio simply confuse the issues, she confidently asserted.

Maddow asked Rose what might help.  The response was the stuff of pure liberal fantasy.

I don’t think the White House should be at the center of that, we have an elaborate educational system, we have a system of higher education, we have departments such as mine that teach on race in the modern and how it’s been constructed and the history of it, good, bad and indifferent, and we have experts who have studied racial profiling and have studied the issue of injustice or discriminatory practices in lending and housing and all kinds of things, good intentions gone awry, whatever. We have experts for that, we need to gather them, resources should be provided to do more for that and this information needs to be a part of our educational system. It shouldn’t be a shock and a surprise and a personal insult that the data that supports racial, structural forms of discrimination might still be going on. The fact that that might be shocking or something we can’t address, that’s where we need the teachable moment.

I watched this exchange in stunned silence.  Where did professor Rose think this national sociology 101 seminar was going to take place?  The tiny percentage of the population exposed to college level classes designed to “deconstruct” American racism generally support the ideals of the civil rights movement.  But how are you going to lure everybody else on campus?  Or perhaps the major television networks could donate public service time so Tricia Rose and her high-minded peers can set us straight on race and society.

And what of the college educated folk who never took a class in the social sciences–did they get the civil rights memo?  Nope!  Apart from the humanities, American higher education reflects the post-racial mythology of an egalitarian America.  The focus is on high finance, medicine, law, engineering and the rest.  Racial understanding doesn’t come with an MBA. 

It would be nice to see the American religious establishment as the antidote for civil rights resentment.  Unfortunately, like sex, wraps itself around the good, the bad and the ugly.  Religion can make us better; but it can also make us far worse.

So how do we learn?

We learn from the real world stories unfolding before our eyes.  The Gates-Crowley affair was as a teachable moment in the same way the Freedom Rides of 1961 was a teachable moment.  In both cases, public opinion shaded to the right, with white and black opinion diverging sharply.  But over time we learn from morally ambiguous social narratives.  We don’t learn everything we need to know.  We don’t all take away the same lessons.  But to the extent we are capable of learning anything this is how it happens.

The rage and fear in the eyes of avid birthers and deathers shows just how lost these folks feel.  The success of the Southern Strategy has largely precluded a meaningful debate about race, dignity and social equality.  As a society, we haven’t changed nearly as much as we like to believe.  But with a black couple in the White House, a black man at the helm of the Department of Justice, and the first Hispanic sitting on the Supreme Court, the American story is changing and we are learning.

6 thoughts on “The Southern Strategy Goes Down Swinging

  1. I don’t get a daily newspaper anymore. Dropped AGN several weeks ago. Are any papers taking Lubbock County judge to task over this? Looks like something Bob Herbert might get his teeth into. This along with the stuff from Arlington makes me sick. Maybe local Repubs are about ready to go back to saying “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”

  2. Yes, the issue has been quite controversial in Lubbock with most public officials, while likely symnpathetic with the views expressed in the postings, arguing that this sort of material has no place in a public place and that elected officials shouldn’t engage in partisan politics on the job since their role is to represent everyone. Several people have commented that they wouldn’t want to be a minority defendant in Judge Head’s court. So, all in all, the response has been quite heartening.

  3. But when you read the readers’ comments at the end of the article (I looked it up on AJ online–nary a word in AGN) it is quite discouraging, with one reader bemoaning how much money has to be spent in incarcerating people of color–money that could better be spent on schools etc. Overtly racist comment that I tagged as inappropriate.

  4. I heard from my Heartland cohorts in Lubbock that Pam Brink, Lubbock County Democratic Chair, has spoken to TV and Print media at the courthouse about Judge Head’s shameful behavior, and that a group will be converging on the courthouse Aug 21 demanding his resignation. Of course they won’t get it, but it doesn’t hurt to register this disapproval.

  5. Has anyone considered making a complaint that Judge Head violated the Code of Judicial Conduct with the State Bar?

  6. Actually, I looked it up and was wrong earlier. He’s not a member of the bar, so has anyone considered making a complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct?

    Canon 3(B)(6) prohibits racial prejudice.
    Canon 5 reguates partisan political activity.

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