March 26, 2004

The Myth of the Racist Republicans

There have been a lot of Academics pushing the line that The Republican Party is a hotbed of racism. And that Southerners are still racist troglodites and cross-burners. It's frustrating to be pretty sure that both these views are false. but not have good counter-arguments.

I recommend The Myth of the Racist Republicans, From The Clairemont Institute

...This bias is evident also in how differently they treat the long Democratic dominance of the South. Carter and the Black brothers suggest that the accommodation of white racism penetrates to the very soul of modern conservatism. But earlier generations of openly segregationist Southerners voted overwhelmingly for Woodrow Wilson's and Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party, which relaxed its civil rights stances accordingly. This coalition passed much of the New Deal legislation that remains the basis of modern liberalism. So what does the segregationist presence imply for the character of liberalism at its electoral and legislative apogee? These scholars sidestep the question by simply not discussing it. This silence implies that racism and liberalism were simply strange political bedfellows, without any common values.

But the commonality, the philosophical link, is swiftly identified once the Democrats leave the stage. In study after study, authors say that "racial and economic conservatism" married white Southerners to the GOP after 1964. So whereas historically accidental events must have led racists to vote for good men like FDR, after 1964 racists voted their conscience. How convenient. And how easy it would be for, say, a libertarian conservative like Walter Williams to generate a counter-narrative that exposes statism as the philosophical link between segregation and liberalism's economic populism...

...Timing may provide the greatest gap between the myth and the actual unfolding of events. Only in the 1980s did more white Southerners self-identify as Republicans than as Democrats, and only in the mid-1990s did Republicans win most Southern House seats and become competitive in most state legislatures. So if the GOP's strength in the South only recently reached its zenith, and if its appeal were primarily racial in nature, then the white Southern electorate (or at least most of it) would have to be as racist as ever. But surely one of the most important events in Southern political history is the long-term decline of racism among whites. The fact that these (and many other) books suggest otherwise shows that the myth is ultimately based on a demonization not of the GOP but of Southerners, who are indeed assumed to have Confederate flags in their hearts if not on their pickups. This view lends The Rise of Southern Republicans a schizophrenic nature: it charts numerous changes in the South, but its organizing categories are predicated on the unsustainable assumption that racial views remain intact.

What's more, the trend away from confident beliefs in white supremacy may have begun earlier than we often think. David Chappell, a historian of religion, argues that during the height of the civil rights struggle, segregationists were denied the crucial prop of religious legitimacy. Large numbers of pastors of diverse denominations concluded that there was no Biblical foundation for either segregation or white superiority. Although many pastors remained segregationist anyway, the official shift was startling: "Before the Supreme Court's [Brown v. Board] decision of 1954, the southern Presbyterians. . . and, shortly after the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) overwhelmingly passed resolutions supporting desegregation and calling on all to comply with it peacefully. . . . By 1958 all SBC seminaries accepted black applicants." With considerable understatement, Chappell notes that "people—even historians—are surprised to hear this." Billy Graham, the most prominent Southern preacher, was openly integrationist.

The point of all this is not to deny that Richard Nixon may have invited some nasty fellows into his political bed. The point is that the GOP finally became the region's dominant party in the least racist phase of the South's entire history, and it got that way by attracting most of its votes from the region's growing and confident communities—not its declining and fearful ones. The myth's shrillest proponents are as reluctant to admit this as they are to concede that most Republicans genuinely believe that a color-blind society lies down the road of individual choice and dynamic change, not down the road of state regulation and unequal treatment before the law. The truly tenacious prejudices here are the mythmakers'.

Posted by John Weidner at March 26, 2004 6:43 PM
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