In today’s NYTimes, Krugman writes:
Last Thursday there was a huge march in Jena, La., to protest the harsh and unequal treatment of six black students arrested in the beating of a white classmate. Students who hung nooses to warn blacks not to sit under a “white” tree were suspended for three days; on the other hand, the students accused in the beating were initially charged with second-degree attempted murder.
. . . Many press accounts of the march have a tone of amazement. Scenes like those in Jena, the stories seemed to imply, belonged in the 1960s, not the 21st century. The headline on the New York Times report, “Protest in Louisiana Case Echoes the Civil Rights Era,” was fairly typical. But the reality is that things haven’t changed nearly as much as people think. Racial tension, especially in the South, has never gone away, and has never stopped being important. And race remains one of the defining factors in modern American politics.
Consider voting in last year’s Congressional elections. Republicans, as President Bush conceded, received a “thumping,” with almost every major demographic group turning against them. The one big exception was Southern whites, 62 percent of whom voted Republican in House races. . . .
Indeed. I wrote about this back in December 2004. I want to reprint what I wrote then.
From Clinton to Lincoln: About Winning the “South”
Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 10:52:14 AM PDT
Daily Kos at its best is a place where Democrats (centrists, progressives and undefined) and other progressives can think about and discuss difficult issues in an open, creative and intelligent manner. A wonderful recent example is Aerthern’s latest installment of Understanding the South. This diary, as all in the series were, is wonderfully written, factually supported and well argued. The discussions generated were intelligent, vigorous and respectful. The conclusions drawn, in my opinion, were wrong. My view is best expressed in The Lessons of Lincoln. On the flip I’ll explain part of why I think so, based on my personal experiences and observations.
Our Strategy for Southern Success must begin with an understanding of Southern Culture. I am a native North Carolinian, my Tar Heel roots going back to the early 19th century, and my family was split pretty evenly during this past election. There was my country grandmother (her town, Bear Grass, has a population of around 200) who responded with a hearty “Hell No!” when someone asked her if she was voting for Bush. There’s my step-father, a man who loves both NASCAR AND fine wines, who was the first person I knew to sport a Kerry bumper sticker. Then, of course, there’s my uncle, a “sports minister” at a huge Charlotte Baptist Church who helped with Bush’s campaign. And there’s my father, a Rush Limbaugh fan who loves few things more than railing against “bleeding heart liberals” (political discussions with him are like walking blindfolded through a minefield with snow-shoes on). His father (my grandpop) is an old-school yellow dog democrat who can barely stomach the fact that his son is a registered Republican.
Even with all that political diversity, my family is very southern, and we have a deep and enduring love for our home state and for the South in general. People who are not from the South tend to be somewhat perplexed by the fierce regionalism of this part of the country, and too often tie it to racism, bigotry, and all the demons of the Old Confederacy. The truth is that it’s just not that simple. There are, unfortunately, many racists here, and certainly they are often more outspoken than in other regions, but that does not extend to saying that white southerners are racist by nature.
I guess this is true as far as it goes. But I think, politically, it misses the simple point, that race drives the White South politically. and when devising a winning political strategy, ignoring this basic point leads to unwise choices.
For example, Aethern writes:
Now–and let me be exceedingly clear on this–competing in the South does NOT mean catering or compromising with racism, ignorance, or bigotry, or selling out our positions. In fact, it means just the opposite. By becoming competitive in the South, we can fight those evils much more than we can by writing off the entire region. All it takes is for candidates to understand the aspects of Southern culture which are positive and seperate from racism and bigotry, and to appeal to those aspects, essentially creating our own positive wedge issue.
This simply is disproved by the evidence. It is precisely the appeal to the baser aspects of Southern culture that have led the GOP to ascendancy. It has been the Democratic fight for our Values that have led to the Party’s demise in the South. Aethern writes of a conversation with Don, who I understood to be African-American, and how African-Americans are feeling abandoned by the Dem Party. Aethern doesn’t connect that the abandoned feeling springs from the move to shore up the Dem standing with the larger cultural “South.” That in fact, this comment argues against her analysis. I believe that what we need to do is in fact turn away from conscious appeal to the South and appeal to our values, highlight the GOP’s extremisim and hatemongering, and build a coalition against the GOP formula that wins the South and “values” voters.
What do I know about it you may well ask. Am I a “son of the South?” No, I am a first generation Cuban-American, born in New Orleans, raised in a rural agricultural stretch of Florida on the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee, Pahokee, Florida a small town of 6000 souls, is where I grew up, went to public school and first experienced the South and the issues of race.
Pahokee had and has a population that is about half African-American, 30% White, 15% Hispanic, mostly Cuban. Before 1960, Pahokee and the surrounding communities were the “Winter Vegetable Capital of the World” (I kid you not–the Bank of Pahokee, sadly now a SunTrust branch, had this slogan written on its checks). Castro and the embargo changed that. One of the world’s largest sugar mills was built in Pahokee in 1962. My dad, who took my mom and brothers out of Cuba in late 1961, came there to work in a business Cuban refugees knew–the sugar business. This place became my home. I was less than a year old.
Pahokee had segregated schools, despite Brown v. Board of Ed. (“all deliberate speed” was pretty deliberate in Pahokee), until 1970. But the Democratic candidate in 1968–Hubert Humphrey–came to Pahokee in 1968, landed a helicopter on the high school football field, and brought Lorne Greene, for a campaign rally. It was exciting. I don’t remember if Humphrey spoke about civil rights or values or Vietnam. I was 6.
When I started my third grade year at Pahokee Elementary School in 1970, a significant change occurred. There were almost no black children in my second grade class. My third grade class was mostly black. Some of this was due to the inclusion of the black children in our now-integrated school. Some of this was due to the fact that most white parents pulled their kids out of the public school and put them in the new all white private school that opened in the neighboring town, which had also integrated its public schools.
In the fifth grade, I started intermediate school at the old black elementary school, East Lake, “across the tracks” (and yes, literally, the black section of town, referred to as N__r Town by white Pahokeeans, was on the other side of railroad tracks). My white neighborhood was a short walk to East Lake, so I walked to school–no bussing for me. In the sixth grade, one day I was taking my usual route to school and noticed that the streets were unusually empty. I arrived and found myself to be the only “white” (my consciousness had not yet absorbed that I wasn’t white) student in the school–there had been a race riot the night before–a white man had shot a well respected black man dead in a personal dispute. The police had released the white man, who claimed self defense. A riot had ensued. School was closed for the week. I walked back home and by then the streets had regained activity and I was chased out of the neighborhood with calls of “cracker” and thrown rocks bouncing around me. I was 11 years old.
Life goes on. Time passes and I made many friends of all races. I was athletically inclined and played sports throughout high school, generally the teams were nearly all black–the basketball team was all black except me. These were my best friends. Good kids, smart kids. After high school, some went to college on athletic scholarships and made good lives for themselves. Most ended up in jail or dead. My white friends went to work or college and made good lives for themselves. Was this a race issue? Yes, it was. A complicated issue, but race was at its heart.
What is the significance of my story? This could be a story about a Northern town as well. And I’m sure it is. But these conditions, these circumstances, these problems, they did not begin in 1960, 1954 or 1896; they began in the South–with slavery. That is why these problems, the problems of race, are a uniquely Southern story–a story that dominates the politics of the South to this day.
And this failure to accept this story as a national and regional disgrace, to fail to understand the indelible stain that this history places on the country, is central to understanding our 30 years of political failure in the South. The problem is not strictly a Southern one. But it is there where our political fortunes are most abject.
In an earlier diary I argued that Lincoln in 1860 is the guide for us. But, strictly speaking, this approach is not aimed at [all] of America, but rather is aimed at that part of America that is not radical, anti-science, anti-gay, or enamoured of the Radical Right Wing Agenda. Sure, this strategy would alienate a part of America. Coincidently, it will alienate a good part of the South. But, like Lincoln in 1860, I believe that Dems must present a stark choice for voters–in our case, the reactionary radicalism of the Right vs. the sensible enlightened policies of the Democrats.
Why will this strategy not work in the South? To put it plainly, the South has not worked through or accepted its past. For nearly 140 years, different forms of apologists have fought to alter history: the “Lost Cause” brigade is the archtype, that sought to innoble a war to protect the institution of slavery–a mythology still not fully beaten back; the creation of the Marble Man, Robert E. Lee, as a National Hero, a neat trick for a man who committed treason; the misleading historiography of Reconstruction; Birth of a Nation’s mythologyzing ode to the KKK; Gone With Wind; Daughters of the Confederacy; State’s Rights; Nascar Dads; the Silent Majority; Law and Order platforms; and yes “values”–are all, in different ways, attempts to deflect and deny the critical issue: race and our disgraceful history.
Are White Southerners, as a group, bad folks? Of course not. They are human. As many Southerners here rightly point out, racism is a national problem. I worked for the David Dinkins Reelection campaign in 1993. Both in ’93 and in ’89 a lot of Democrats didn’t vote for Dinkins. Was it conscious racism? Mostly no, but it was racism nonetheless. These Dems were quicker to think Dinkins stupid, lazy, incompetent. But, these are regions we do win in and will win in. We do not and cannot in the South. Not without relinquishing our values.
My brother lives in Atlanta and is married to a wonderful woman from Montgomery, Alabama. I’ve spent a lot of time with them in both Atlanta and Montgomery, where I met many wonderful, cultured, intelligent and educated people. I remember in particular the good people of Montgomery, Alabama, my sister in law’s family and their friends–a highlight was spending a good deal of time with Scottie Fitzgerald, a family friend. Surely these folks are not demons? They are not. But they do not face their history, our country’s history, and how this history’s stain is upon all we do. They accept the new myths–the “values” divide, the myth of the radical left. They see a discussion of race as an attack on Southern culture. These are good people–but they cannot be convinced, not now, not yet. The Peculiar Institution and its 140 years of reverberations still impede us. In short, we cannot win here with our values.
So we are left with these stark choices–abandon our values or build a winning strategy with those who can accept and embrace our values. I believe the only choice is to win with our values, to win without the South, as Lincoln did in 1860. And this does not mean a Civil War or even a civil war. We are not their choice, but neither are we so abhorrent. And that is progress.