The Southern Strategy Never Ends 

If you’ve ever argued with a Republican about race, there’s a pretty good chance they brought up the Democrats creating the KKK, or Lincoln being a Republican. They love doing this and it is very weird. I mean, imagine the last time you weren’t racist was over 150 years ago and you’re bragging about it. Whatever. Obviously, logic isn’t really the point. The point is distraction, and one of the things we’re being distracted from is called the Southern Strategy. 

The usual story is that during the Civil War, the Democrats were pro-slavery and the Republicans were anti-slavery. The reality is that while there were Democrats and Republicans, there were also splinter parties and parties within parties, and on the issue of slavery, politicians acted according to the North/South divide more than party affiliation. That history is definitely too complex for the we-weren’t-racist-150-years-ago crowd, but it’s the context for what happens next: Black people struggle to gain rights for a century until civil rights acts start to take effect. 

This country likes to pretend it granted citizens rights out of the goodness of its heart, but really, any group that has attained a greater status got there in spite of the country, not because of it. And so, in the 1960s, as Black people are visibly overcoming oppressive systems during a Democratic administration, the Republican Party makes a concerted effort to court Southern racists. The first was Barry Goldwater during his 1964 presidential bid. Journalist Richard Rovere covered it for The New Yorker at the time:

“By coming South, Barry Goldwater had made it possible for great numbers of unapologetic white supremacists to hold great carnivals of white supremacy. They were not troubled in the least over whether this would hurt the Republican Party in the rest of the country. They wanted to make — for their own satisfaction, if for no one else’s — a display of the fact that they had found and were enjoying membership in one organization that was secure against integration.”

While it was clear to Rovere what was happening, many others got to pretend it wasn’t. Largely, this is because of the Republicans’ approach. Notorious GOP strategist Lee Atwater explained this in a 1981 interview:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

Now, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it,” but there’s a little more to it. History can be uncomfortable and just recognizing its repetition can require too much discomfort to accept. For example, President Biden came to Maine last month. It was a widely celebrated visit that I will now ruin for you with history. 

Remember when the Democrats were celebrating the most diverse set of presidential candidates in history? In order of greatest to least on the scale of Republican fear, the major candidates were a Black woman (Kamala Harris), a Latino (Julián Castro), a Black man (Cory Booker), an Asian man (Andrew Yang), a gay white man (Pete Buttigieg), two white women (Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren) and two old white men, Bernie and Biden. There is, of course, a difference on the Republican fear scale between the two old white men, which was displayed in the form of a Nazi banner unfurled at a Bernie rally that March of 2020.

Then the Democrats started to debate who was “electable,” meaning, Who could pull votes from the Republicans? As the main motivation of Republicans was racism, that could only mean one thing. Dems then doubled down with, “Vote blue no matter who” — which, c’mon. RFK, Jr.? What if Trump switched back to being a Democrat? Doesn’t it matter at least a little who the candidate is? 

It turns out the answer is yes, because, remember the order of the most diverse set of candidates on that Republican fear scale? Well, that’s the exact order in which they dropped out of the race.

This appeal to racists has shown results. Following a record high number of killings by police in 2022, Biden has rewarded police with more than $30 billion in extra funding. His immigration-enforcement policies have overwhelmingly targeted Haitians, and recent studies show that even his environmental justice plan could increase the racial pollution gap. 

Now that you’ve seen both political parties successfully run Southern Strategies, how uncomfortable are you? I sure don’t feel great. 

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller. He is also a contributor to the bestselling How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling, from The Moth. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

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