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Obama and the Southern Tradition

| November 12, 2012

With Virginia’s and Florida’s bare exceptions, the correlation with last Tuesday’s electoral divide is inescapable.

“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.”

pierre tristam flaglerlive editor's blogLet’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.

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23 Responses for “Obama and the Southern Tradition”

  1. The racism of yesteryear has come full circle in our county. The entire world embraced our choice of a black President four years ago and most nations of the world still support him. The fringe elements of Republican sect have crept through into the mainstream once again with conservative mouthpieces planting the seeds of hate. The only doubt lies here at home rooting from bigotry. Watch the white hands paint Obama in Blackface at

  2. Nancy N. says:

    The Republicans obsess about the “middle class” because that shrinking group, or the upper white part of it, is their base (or the majority of it). The shrinking part is why they lost.

    The Democrats obsess over the “middle class” because although a significant number of their voters are actually lower class, who wants to identify by that term? Most of us who are actually lower class identify ourselves as “middle”. Research bears this out.

    So really, they are using the same term to refer to two different groups.

  3. DWFerg says:

    I thought the “historic election of 2008” put us past the racial divide ? Still talking about it in 2012—-and he won again , garnering millions of “white” or is it caucasian(PC), votes…..Why, ?…The North / South divide isn’t based on race in my opinion, it’s based on way of life for generations—Just lije the messages of “Country music” vs. the messages of other popular music… They are Vastly DIFFERENT(e.g. Rap…what are the themes of rap vs. that of Country music?)-Well as much as you would like to compare the historical roots of racism to last week’s election results, I disagree. When you have 59 precincts in my former home town voting 100% for Pres. Obama, I believe that is a glaring ‘racial” stat….Why not write a column about that scenario ? Mr. Tristam

  4. Lee says:

    What a CROCK……If I see bigotry in this country its from the battle between BLACKS and LATINOS.
    The old south has long passed its racist ways. Fear the foreign invaders of our borders and the WAR that will be fought to preserve our American way of life.

    • PCer says:

      You are deluding yourself. There are regular KKK meetings right here in Flagler county. Bigotry is alive and well.

      • Magnolia says:

        WHERE?! If you personally know of such a thing, it is up to you to contact the authorities immediately. We have federal hate crime laws in this country.

        Count me as one who is sick to death of this racism crap. I call it CRAP because that is what it is.

        We are Americans, like it or not and stop blaming racism. Most of our kids don’t even know what that is anymore, thank God.

  5. pcfan says:

    Over 97% of blacks voted for Obama. That is racism.

    • Samuel Smith says:

      93% actually, including 71% hispanic and 73% other. Maybe they just didn’t want a venture capitalist with a proven record of screwing the middle class as president.

  6. Magnolia says:

    And I am looking forward to the day, as I am sure most are, when we can stop “obsessing” altogether. I am sick of the class warfare thing being stoked in this country.

  7. "My Daily Rant" says:

    Its always the white man doing wrong or always being told their Raceist, funny thing alot of the time its usally from some Immergrant from a Third world nation who couldnt make it in their own country.When you put down white men try to remember with out us there would be NO lights,phone,electricty,cars,planes,Medicine,trains,Welfare,social security,food stamps, and best of all our once great nation.Its always the Crazy Liberals or worse the Immergrant Liberal that think if you dont believe in what they do your wrong or if you dont bilieve in obama your a Raceist.
    Have a good day and PEACE from a White Man

    • Samuel Smith says:

      Preach on, brother. Like you, I skipped basic grammar in elementary school and instead spent my time out back smoking cigarettes and beating brown people.

  8. Netracer41 says:

    This comparison is cute, but it is a stretch. To imply that reasonable people who disagree with the liberal philosophy as to the role and scope of government are racists is inaccurate. On a macro level today, there is little difference between the views of the Republican and Democrat parties. Both visions ultimately lead us to bankruptcy. That point is incontrovertible.

    During the recent campaign both candidates’ spoke of reducing the annual amount of debt accumulation but neither proposed a plan to balance the budget (Obama has never even submitted a budget) and begin paying off our national debt in order to remain solvent. They both intend to spend us into oblivion…just on different programs.

    We must demand a balanced budget amendment to our constitution. Only then will we be forced to engage in a real conversation about spending priorities and choices.

    Is requiring our government to spend no more than it takes in founded in racism? Is paying our debt a racist act? Is asking all able bodied people to be self reliant racism? Is asking people who receive government assistance to work contribute to society, i.e. Roosevelt and the WPA racist?

    Today racism has equal prevalence across all social stratus and in both political parties. The difference is economic philosophy not racial oppression.

  9. Jim R. says:

    Class warfare is exactly what we need.
    There has been class warfare going on for the last 40 yrs and you would have to be blind deaf and dumb to not know who has won that war.
    We should go back to the progressive income tax where excess profits are taxed up to 90%, then maybe the 90% of us would win a few battles.

  10. Mary says:

    I think the raciest lays in you who wrote this article… You seriously think the issue of The People with Obama is because of his skin color? Obama lost some black votes too does that also make them a raciest as well? The reason anything with race is still going around is because of journalist as yourself writing these kinds of articles that are far from what the true matter is. Is racism gone no.. will it ever be gone highly unlikely again with journalist and newsreporters always playing a race card and making people have that thought in their head… I must say by your words you seem a.. little racist towards your own race there Mr. Tristam voting for a man by his skin color is also being raciest… Keep stirring that racism pot you so enjoy throwing out with your articles..

    • NortonSmitty says:

      And all of you Patriotic keep denying that Racism is not part and parcel of the Republican Southern Strategy since Nixon. Maybe you should read the words of Karl Rove’s mentor who perfected it, Lee Atwater, from 1981:

      “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.”

      The whole 42 minute interview can be heard here:

      You deny it because you think you yourself are not racist at all, just Conservative. But to deny that the core of the Republican strategy is largely based on manipulating you and your fellow white men is just silly. Understandable, because nobody likes to realize they have been led around like sheep by there baser tribal fears by a silk-suited political consultant. But silly none the less.

  11. Stevie says:

    “At the time of Ulysses S. Grant’s election to the presidency, white supremacists were conducting a reign of terror throughout the South. In outright defiance of the Republican-led federal government, Southern Democrats formed organizations that violently intimidated blacks and Republicans who tried to win political power.”

  12. Bubba says:

    Well America. you will now get what you asked for ! No new jobs, 49% unemployment, riots in the streets of every major city, crime skyrocketing, dollar inflation, firearm confiscation, and then the GREAT DEPRESSION. Way to go America !

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Not me Bubba! I asked for a pony. A white one with a free cell phone on it’s saddle and who belongs to the International Association of Amalgamated Pony Workers Union. That’s all. Well of course I mean besides crushingly higher taxes on the rich, free birth control for my slut sister, mandatory classes in tasteful cross-dressing instead of gym and slavery reparations to be hand delivered every payday to every black family in America by you and your gravy-sweating cousin-screwing redneck bretherin.

      That’s all. And then me and every other Democrat in the country will be satisfied, I swear. If you don’t believe me, ask Rush! He’ll tell you.

  13. Stevie says:

    I lived through the civil rights era in the south. As a child, I remember everyone was screaming about forced integration, busing children, and the beginning of affirmative action in the 60’s. This was not just a Republican strategy, it was EVERY ONE was screeching racist slogans.

    I don’t see that now except the NAACP is still operating on skin color alone [working for the Democrats] and the New Black Panthers are still operating with intimating tactics. Al Sharpdon isn’t exactly what I would call a tolerant figure when it comes to Caucasians.

  14. Sherry Epley says:

    Very well done Pierre! I can tell by the hornet’s nest you’ve stirred up here.

    As a white woman whose ancestors (the Slocums) immigrated from England to the Southern region of the US in the 1600s, the research into my own family confirms much of what Pierre has so eloquently written.

    My up bringing was permeated by the “Southern Traditions” . . . passed down from generation to generation much like pecan pie recipes and hand carved baby cribs. My forebears were hard working farmers who feared the wrath of a Christian God. They were slave owners who believed they had the God given right to dominion over human heathens just like the other “lower” animals of the earth. They did not consider themselves to be racists at all. They even occasionally exhibited a protective posture towards their servants . . . as one would with a favorite possession such as “Old Bessie”, the mule. The citizens from Europe were their equals, even if my ancestors disagreed with their politics, and sometimes felt compelled to spill that “blue” blood.

    I personally never felt comfortable with the culture I was” born and raised” in. . . but the same insidious, deeply rooted, points of view surrounded me. . . not only at each and every family gathering, but a tschool and church, as well. I remember a preacher at my grandmother’s local Baptist church trying to convince me (as a 6 year old) that white people came from the Garden of Eden, but black people (like Belle who did Granny’s ironing and cleaning) evolved from monkeys. I ran home crying on that day. I knew somehow I had just been subjected to something terrible, but I didn’t know what it was. I said nothing to anyone.

    Perhaps” running away from all of it” was a primary motivator for getting married and moving to New York at age 17. Since those tender years, I have lived in other parts of the USA and traveled extensively in other countries. Still, there are times when when the extremely painful confusion of my early years comes to me in a hard slap. This is one of those times.

    Why is it that the human race is destined to struggle so hard to evolve beyond our animal nature and baser negative instincts? We, every one of us, are blessings on this planet. . . shouldn’t we begin behaving appropriately?

    • Anonymous says:

      Sherry, you have to look to Anthropology. For hundreds of thousands of years, we hand to distrust even the folks from over the hill who were not of our tribe. Because they were going to come and kill us, take our food, livestock and women. And they really were. So it is foolish to think humans are wise enough to put those fears of so many centuries aside for anybody too different from themselves or their kin in just a few generations. All races and tribes have this fault.

      At least today we reserve our innate fears for the ones who are a different color. That has to be why we seem to be giving those damn Asians a pass. Small progress.

      Anyhow, that was a very nice post. May we all make such rapid progress as you seem to have achieved.

  15. Deep South says:

    Florida voted blue (Democrat), and all the Florida counties with a major college university voted Democrat and in favor of President Obama. Race had nothing to do with this election in Florida. This election was won by President Obama, because he received the votes from the most highly educated people and colleges in those Florida counties that had the most intelligent people, who made the correct choice for the person to run this country.

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