Wrestling with the Right’s southern racial legacy

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.

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8 Comments on “Wrestling with the Right’s southern racial legacy”

  1. Bret4207 says:

    Wow, race baiting from NCPR! And this post didn’t appear till 1/3/11, even though it’s dated 12/29/10. What’s up with that?

    Yup, good idea, lets rewrite some more history. The Democrats were the good guys and the Republicans were the bad guys. I keep forgetting that. What it’s time to do Brian is for the DEMOCRATS to address their racial bigotry and race baiting. This turning the blind eye to the left and their issues makes a mockery of the purpose of your post.

    I thought you were better than sinking to this.

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  2. McCulley says:

    Brian, I have to ask since Democrats/Liberals, have held the black vote for generations and the black plight in the inner city has not improved.They still live in crime infested neighborhoods with poor quality schools, their own black leadership pushes them to vote for the same policys time after time. (insanity doing the same thing over and over again an expecting a different result) Could it be that Democrats are racist and purposefully keeping blacks from being empowered so they can maintain power over them?

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  3. oa says:

    McCulley says: “the black plight in the inner city has not improved.”
    It improved rapidly under the last Democratic president. Crime went down significantly from 1992-2000 (look up FBI stats), and here are a few economic markers:
    # Smallest welfare rolls in 32 years
    The President pledged to end welfare as we know it and signed landmark bipartisan welfare reform legislation in 1996. Since then, caseloads have been cut in half, to the lowest level since 1968, and millions of parents have joined the workforce. People on welfare today are five times more likely to be working than in 1992.

    # Higher incomes at all levels
    After falling by nearly $2,000 between 1988 and 1992, the median family’s income rose by $6,338, after adjusting for inflation, since 1993. African American family income increased even more, rising by nearly $7,000 since 1993. After years of stagnant income growth among average and lower income families, all income brackets experienced double-digit growth since 1993. The bottom 20 percent saw the largest income growth at 16.3 percent.

    # Lowest poverty rate in 20 years
    Since Congress passed President Clinton’s Economic Plan in 1993, the poverty rate declined from 15.1 percent to 11.8 percent last year — the largest six-year drop in poverty in nearly 30 years. There are now 7 million fewer people in poverty than in 1993. The child poverty rate declined more than 25 percent, the poverty rates for single mothers, African Americans and the elderly have dropped to their lowest levels on record, and Hispanic poverty dropped to its lowest level since 1979.

    # Lowest teen birth rate in 60 years
    In his 1995 State of the Union Address, President Clinton challenged Americans to join together in a national campaign against teen pregnancy. The birth rate for teens aged 15-19 declined every year of the Clinton Presidency, from 60.7 per 1,000 teens in 1992 to a record low of 49.6 in 1999.

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  4. Bret4207 says:

    The teen birth rate is rising-http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/25/AR2010012503957.html

    Poverty on the rise- http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129910498

    Especially among blacks- http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/09/29/census-data-show-dramatic-rise-poverty-among-africanamerican-children-nations-capitol

    Real income fell, especially for blacks- http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/webfeatures_econindicators_income_20080826/

    And of course there’s the myth that welfare is a thing of the past- http://blog.rebeltraders.net/2009/06/22/welfare-rolls-rise-sharply/


    Now, you can blame this on Bush or Wall St or the Easter Bunny. But facts are facts and there has been no change in Democratic leadership of most major urban areas for over 40 years, probably closer to 50 years now. The cities with the worst problems like Detroit have been Democrat forever.

    I doubt that Republican leadership would fix the problems, but conservative leadership with an eye towards fiscal and social responsibility certainly wouldn’t hurt anything. Until people stop expecting gov’t to provide for them, stop allowing gov’t to steal from them and demand gov’t be accountable for it’s mistakes and misdeeds nothing will change. Pointing out a brief rise in income or fall of poverty during a boom period is just refusing to recognize the basic problems we face. It’s not the political party that’s in charge that matters, it’s the system we’ve let develop.

    BTW- from a historical standpoint the Republicans proposed and passed all the earlier civil rights acts. There were several civil rights acts long before 1964. To ignore that is more revisionist history.

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  5. Mcculley says:

    oa, couldn’t it be said that everything you sight is because of welfare reform passed by conservatives? After all welfare reform forced people to work, there fore increasing their income and bring them above the poverty line. I do notice you didn’t mention education I will assume this area is still failing by even your standards. Interesting how we are always told we need better education to lift people from poverty. Your statistic show that isn’t true ironically.

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  6. oa says:

    “oa, couldn’t it be said that everything you sight is because of welfare reform passed by conservatives?”
    No, Mcculley, and since you brought up education (more on that later), it’s “cite.” Bret went round and round with this one on an earlier comment thread several weeks ago, saying Bill Clinton, despite campaigning on ending welfare as we know it in 1992, had nothing to do with ending welfare as we know it. I’ll grant that it passed due to important GOP votes, if that makes you happy. The GOP is kind and brave and true, and always has been. But welfare reform was implemented by a Democratic president. The bigger reason for African Americans getting jobs, however, was that there were jobs to get. Jobs that came to be under a Dem administration.
    Anyway, you said blacks had no reason to vote for Democrats, and that they were insane. I offered statistical evidence that under the previous Democratic president, their lives overall improved, and that they had rational reasons for voting the way they do–besides the fact that GOP candidate Carl Paladino sent out emails like these: http://wnymedia.net/paladino/
    Finally, you change the subject to education. So here are 5 seconds of google time figures on education. (Incidentally, these are not “my standards”; these are facts–not everything is personal).

    1.4 million
    Among single-race blacks 25 and older, the number who had an advanced degree in 2007 (e.g., master’s, doctorate, medical or law). In 1998, 857,000 blacks had this level of education.

    2.5 million
    Number of single-race black college students in fall 2008. This was roughly double the corresponding number from 15 years earlier.
    Read more: African American Demographics, Population, Incomes, Veterans, Education, Voting — Infoplease.com http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmcensus1.html#ixzz1A5OShhVS

    For what it’s worth, isn’t making others do all your research kind of a welfare mentality?

    Bret, I’m glad you’re doing your own research now. Thank you. Seriously. That wasn’t the argument I was making, though. I agree that when America caught a cold in this recession, the poor, including poor blacks, caught pneumonia. I’ll blame the Easter Bunny. Because we can’t point fingers at anyone from past administrations. And I’ll grant that the 14th Amendment would not have passed without Republicans. Because throughout history, Republicans have always been wonderful stewards of fantastic governance. Only Democrats have gotten us into wars and depressions and anything else bad. And liberals. I’m with you. Totally. And we have always been at war with Eastasia.
    But that’s not the crux here. Mcculley said African Americans were insane to vote Democratic. I disagreed, and tried to make a fact-based case.
    This won’t change either of your minds, so I’m not sure why I try to offer facts. I got tired of that for a while on these threads, and just went to sarcasm, mostly needling Bret about how many of the very people whom he wants in office are leading the charge to take away pension plans like his, but I don’t think that’s productive either. I’ll just have to accept that much of conservative politics these days amounts to this simple formula: If something drives a liberal crazy, whether it’s true or not, it’s worth it for conservatives to say it, loud and proud.
    We all have our hobbies.
    (By the way, in this thread, Bret, I’m not saying your links to current economic conditions are untrue. Thank you for actually putting forward real links with actual numbers and reporting. As I said, it wasn’t germane to the point I was trying to make–or maybe it was, actually, since African Americans didn’t come out to the polls in the same numbers in the 2010 midterms, maybe because they weren’t enthused about the Dem performance, more proof of black voter sanity, I’d say. And your links were in the service of an argument to drive a liberal crazy. But at least it wasn’t fact-free BS.)

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  7. Bret4207 says:

    Blacks aren’t insane to vote Democrat. That’s just not true. If someone is going out of their way to cater to you it’s just common sense to vote for them. The problem is that while most Democrats politicians over the past 40 or so years have made catering to blacks a common theme, they’ve not really made the leap between politics and real life. For instance, Clarance Thomas- BAD. Condi Rice- BAD. Van Jones- GOOD. Maxine Waters- GOOD. Okay, so skin color is important enough to create special laws and regulations and entitlements IF you think the right way. So what really matters is your politics. Barack Obama- GOOD, Alan Keyes- BAD.

    It’s more than just the race card, isn’t it?

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  8. oa says:

    I have no earthly idea what your point is, or even what you’re trying to say. But I absolutely agree.

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