Friday, September 18, 2009

Carter, Racism and the G.O.P.

As far as I am concerned, a Republican politician from the Deep (secessionist) South is suspect when it comes to racial matters. Here's why.

As we all know, the Democrats were the original pro-slavery, states' rights, and pro-segregation party in the U.S. It was Lincoln and the newly-formed Republican party -- "radical Republicans" as they were almost uniformly referred to in Dixie -- that was hated down south during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oddly, it was a coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists that enabled Roosevelt to pass his New Deal legislation. Roosevelt apparently did little if anything to disrupt this rather strange group of bedfellows since lynchings, poll-taxes and other parts of Jim Crow thrived until the passage of civil rights legislation near the end of the 20th century.

However, under Richard Nixon, there was a major realignment. It's not that the Republicans overtly embraced racism -- in fact, the party had a pretty good record in support of civil rights laws -- at least until fairly recently. Everett Dirksen, a G.O.P. senator from Illinois (and champion of the marigold as national flower), was a leading ally of Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson in getting anti-Jim Crow legislation passed. However, the Republicans, following Nixon's advisor Kevin Phillips, made it clear that they were the loyal supporters of the political views and goals of Jim Crow intransigence: anti-Federalism, revisionist descriptions of the Civil War -- or, as they like to call it, "the War Between the States" -- and, especially, States' Rights. I think it was Kevin Phillips himself who told the G.O.P. not to bother opposing civil rights laws: it was not necessary. Just paint the Democrats as the party of the urban north and "government interference." People will then automatically blame them for more black voters and black mayors. Rabid anti-communism was another tool, since, whatever its many failings, the C.P.U.S.A. was a major advocate of unionism and racial solidarity. Ronald Reagan's anecdotal images of "Welfare Queens" driving Cadillacs, and general attacks on social programs -- which, in point of fact, benefitted the rural poor as well as the largely black urban poor -- reinforced the message: We Republicans understand your resentments against the big Federal government -- "you know what we mean..."

Nixon and Reagan both pursued Phillips' "Southern Strategy" by making so-called "conservative" judicial appointments throughout the courts. Here "conservative" means most likely to support states' rights and find fault with social and pro-labor legislation. (Nixon went too far in trying to appoint overt reactionaries Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court -- but even the Congress wouldn't buy them and they were rejected.)

Black people throughout the United States got the message as well as anyone. They went from lovers of "father Abraham" and the Republicans to the most dependable block of Democratic voters. The solid Dixiecrat south went from Democratic to Republican.

Politicians like Joe Wilson owe their offices to this realignment of the parties, which had tacit but well-understood messages. Wilson was one of the few South Carolina politicians who actually voted to keep the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse.

The upshot of this is: Even if you don't say anything overtly racist, the fact that you benefit from racism and try to thwart those fighting it, makes you legitimately open to the charge that you are a racist. It is in this sense the Jimmy Carter is quite justified in raising the issue about Joe Wilson and some of the G.O.P.'s more virulent Obama haters.

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting that Jimmy Carter spoke about racism being behind the opposition to Obama's Health Care proposals. I have the impression that in gereral most oposition to health care reform was not based on racism but misinformation. However, the uproar about his speech to school children, which was not new for a President and not really contiversal in subject materal, was IMHO grounded in racism (how dare a black man tell my children anything, its OK if he speaks to inner city [non-white] children.) It's the only reason I can find for the complaints.