As the modern conservative movement continues to define itself, and expand its power, one of the great moral challenges of the Right is the devastating question of slavery, Jim Crow and racism.
First a bit of history.
The Civil War was fought and won, in large measure, by the Republican Party, a fact which the GOP points to with well-earned pride.
Long after the war, the Democratic Party was the party of the South and the political movement that advocated shamefully for an apartheid-style society.
Woodrow Wilson, the “great” Democratic president of the first World War, was an unreconstructed bigot, guilty of the most medieval racial views.
But after 1968, when Democrats pushed through the Civil Rights Act, the nation’s two political parties began a slow, painful pivot.
Democrats increasingly became the party of multi-ethnic, urban America.
Republicans pursued the so-called “Southern strategy” crafted by Richard Nixon, deliberately using racial tension to build support among white voters, especially in rural communities.
This strategy was embraced, sadly, by Ronald Reagan, who chose in 1980 to give a “state’s rights” speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where in 1964 three civil rights workers were lynched in the “Mississippi Burning” case.
Various Republicans in recent years have acknowledged that using this tactic was a tactical and a moral error. RNC chairman Michael Steele put it this way:
“For the last 40-plus years we had a “Southern Strategy” that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”
Conservative critics were furious with these comments, noting that Steele himself is African American.
But in 2005, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman offered a similar mea culpa at the NAACP national convention:
“Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
I don’t happen to think the Republican-conservative movement is racist, despite claims made by many liberals.
But I do think the GOP has absorbed a Southern-white culture which still hasn’t thoroughly or honestly dealt with its racist past.
On the contrary. There are growing signs that conservative leaders want to trivialize or tidy up this painful part of their history.
In a recent interview with the Weekly Standard, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour described life under the brutish Jim Crow system in his home town of Yazoo, Mississippi.
“I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” Barbour said, in an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard.
He goes on to describe a visit to the city by civil rights leader Martin Luther King in 1962 as if it were a scene out of the Andy Griffith Show.
“The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”
If Barbour’s revisionist memory were an isolated incident — which is how it’s been portrayed in the media — it wouldn’t matter so much.
But conservatives have worked to literally rewrite the sordid ugliness of the South’s tortured history.
In Virginia, public school history books clam that “thousands of black soldiers fought for the south,” according to an expose published by the Washington Post.
“The claim is one often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most mainstream historians. The book’s author, Joy Masoff, said at the time that she found references to it during research on the Internet. Five Ponds Press later apologized.”
Running parallel to this tidied up account is the narrative of white victimization offered regularly by conservative media — a sort of nationalized Southern strategy.
There are millions of Americans who believe that Black Panthers or ACORN activists are stealing elections, or that Democrats are systematically encouraging undocumented foreign workers to cast ballots.
They claim that Barack Obama, our first black president, isn’t legitimately American.
Repeated investigations have shown that none of these accounts are true.
To their credit, some conservative leaders — including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush — have begun reaching out aggressively to people of color.
And why not? If conservative values really do appeal to Joe Sixpack America, why shouldn’t they also appeal to average Joes who happen to be black or Hispanic?
Ultimately, this is a painful and difficult transition the GOP will have to make, as people of color grow in numbers and take more positions of power and prominence in our society.
But it’s also long past due for conservatives to confront honestly the part of their cultural tradition — racial bigotry and race-baiting politics — that is unsavory and immoral.