Obama and the Southern Tradition
FlaglerLive | November 12, 2012
“The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their place,” Lillian Smith writes in Killers of the Dream, her 1949 memoir of growing up in Jaspers, Florida. “The father who rebuked me for an air of superiority toward schoolmates from the mill and rounded out his rebuke by gravely reminding me that ‘all men are brothers,’ trained me in the steel-rigid decorums I must demand of every colored male. They who so gravely taught me to split my body from my feelings and both from my ‘soul,’ taught me also to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from southern tradition.”
Let’s not pretend, in the euphoria of returning one Negro to the White House, that certain realities of southern tradition have changed that much. The map above, duplicating a different red-blue divide, says plenty. “Every now and then,” Michael Lind wrote in Slate two days ago, “someone highlights the overlap between today’s Republican states and the slave states of the former Confederacy. As clichéd as the point may be, it remains indispensable to understanding what is happening in American politics today.”
That can be summed up in a different overlap: between what Lilliam Smith wrote some 60 years ago and what Lind writes today, a nearly perfect overlap of the social and the political in the southern psyche: “Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.” The difference, Lind writes, is that race is not the dominant motive. Economics is. Southerners push a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation economy that has its roots in slavery’s no-wage, no-tax, no-regulation economy, and that carries over today, altered somewhat, in the way southern states market themselves to companies. Florida’s Rick Scott is a standard-bearer of that economic devolution.
“White supremacy,” in other words, “was never an end in itself, but a tactic used by the Southern oligarchs to divide white workers from nonwhite workers. But the Southern elite can dispense with racism, because it has never cared what color its serfs are.”
But it isn’t all economics. The white working class southerner isn’t conducting business strategy when he perpetuates the institutional bigotry described by Smith. Racism in the south is also identity. And, beyond the enormous gender gap (the largest in the hostory of Gallup polls), it was an ugly identity at play in Tuesday’s vote. “For close to the surface lies a political racism that harks back 150 years to the time of Reconstruction, when African-Americans won citizenship rights,” Steven Hahn, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Times Sunday. “Black men also won the right to vote and contested for power where they had previously been enslaved. How is this so? The ‘birther’ challenge, which galvanized so many Republican voters, expresses a deep unease with black claims to political inclusion and leadership that can be traced as far back as the 1860s. Then, white Southerners (and a fair share of white Northerners) questioned the legitimacy of black suffrage, viciously lampooned the behavior of new black officeholders and mobilized to murder and drive off local black leaders. […] The truth is that in the post-Civil War South few whites ever voted for black officeseekers, and the legacy of their refusal remains with us in a variety of forms. The depiction of Mr. Obama as a Kenyan, an Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim — in other words, as a man fundamentally ineligible to be our president — is perhaps the most searing. Tellingly, it is a charge never brought against any of his predecessors.”
Today’s tactics have only changes in style, not in substance: the bogus witch-hunt of voter fraud that led innumerable states to pass voter ID laws, restrict early voting days, intimidate or delay voters at voting time, and the equally bogus pandering to the middle class as one way to ignore the more serious issues the country has been so adept at ignoring since the age of Reagan: “THE repercussions of political racism are ever present, sometimes in subtle rather than explicit guises. The campaigns of both parties showed an obsessive concern with the fate of the “middle class,” an artificially homogenized category mostly coded white, while resolutely refusing to address the deepening morass of poverty, marginality and limited opportunity that disproportionately engulfs African-American and Latino communities.”
Democrats haven’t fought back. Obama won, but his victory was driven by demographic, not by ideas. The egalitarian ideal is dead. He’s doing very little to revive it, or to counter–as Bill Clinton more effectively did, and as Lyndon Johnson last did most effectively–the nation’s deepest corrosion and greatest liability in the long term: inequality (of which deficits are a symptom).
So we wait for an Obama who, effectively emancipated from the burdens of re-election–and the shattering consequences of not winning it, which would have been far greater for Obama than they are for Romney, who’s just another white male in a long line of losing white males–offers up a new vision, or at least a rediscovered vision, for a nation now almost three decades retarded by southern conservatism. Maybe his second inaugural will point the way. The nation is well overdue. But so is Obama.