Who is racist? A look at the ‘Southern Strategy’

Who is racist? A look at the ‘Southern Strategy’
George Wallace

I recently refuted one part of the popular civil rights myth that, following the 1960s, racist “conservative” Democrats realigned with the Republican Party. Another point perpetrating the myth is the so-called Republican “Southern Strategy.”

To be sure, there was indeed a Southern Strategy, but it differs from the popular myth. As is natural in the course of politics, Republicans desired a political strategy to capture Southern votes from Democrats. The popular myth, however, says that Republicans, beginning with Richard Nixon, abandoned their support for civil rights and deliberately appealed to Southern racists as a means to winning the South. This is proved, the argument goes, by observing both racial “code words” employed by Republicans and the fact that the GOP won the core of the South. But neither point is persuasive.

Consider the “code words.” Influential mythmakers have alleged that George Wallace’s racism can be seen in Barry “Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, in Richard Nixon’s subtle manipulation of the busing issue, in Ronald Reagan’s genial demolition of affirmative action, in George Bush’s use of the Willie Horton ads, and in Newt Gingrich’s demonization of welfare mothers.”

The problem is, as the Claremont Institute points out, “George Wallace’s segregationism was obviously racist, but these other positions are not obviously racist.” Surely there were some racists who held such positions (as I noted in a piece regarding Lee Atwater, for instance). But these positions can also be held by principled non-racists, as critics concede. Therefore, mythmakers must provide a system that discerns what is and is not racist. But, the Claremont Institute explains:

Critics want to have it both ways: they acknowledge that these views could in principle be non-racist (otherwise they wouldn’t be a “code” for racism) but suggest they never are in practice (and so can be reliably treated as proxies for racism). The result is that their claims are non-falsifiable because they are tautological: these views are deemed racist because they are defined as racist. This amounts to saying that opposition to the policies favored by today’s civil rights establishment is a valid indicator of racism.

Consider, too, the evidence of Southern electoral patterns. Since 1928, Republicans had been winning some Southern states — Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina — with some regularity (excluding the 30s and 40s, when FDR and Truman dominated the electoral map). In 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, lost the aforementioned states and won five Southern Democratic segregationist states — Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana. But following that election, those states reverted to Democrat, and remained so for decades. In 1976, four years into the malevolent “Southern Strategy,” Democrat Jimmy Carter swept the South, save for Virginia. Ann Coulter documents that, even when Reagan won his 44-state landslide in 1980, he either lost or narrowly won the Southern Goldwater states; and when Clinton won in 1992, he carried two of those states. Indeed the South did not become a Republican stronghold until decades after the 60s, when Democratic segregationists died off.

Therefore, Gerard Alexander concludes:

Election results show that the GOP became the South’s dominant party in the least racist phase of the region’s history, and got—and stays—that way as the party of the upwardly mobile, more socially conservative, openly patriotic middle-class, not of white solidarity.

The history of civil rights is so entrenched in myth that facts may come as a surprise. Still, history must not be ceded to the mythmakers.

Cross-posted at Diversity of Ideas.

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David Weinberger

David Weinberger

David Weinberger previously worked at the Heritage Foundation. He currently resides in the Twin Cities, and he blogs at Diversityofideas.blogspot.com


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