Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Revisiting the "Southern Strategy"

The "southern strategy" is alive and well.

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 forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger." - GOP strategist Lee Atwater

I think I could likely safely wager that most people today are ignorant of what was known as the "Southern Strategy" when it began in the 1960s. Simply put, it was the strategy used by the Republican Party to appeal to the southern states through their racist attitudes toward African-Americans. It was probably best summed up by GOP strategist Lee Atwater in the quote I used to begin this piece. The initial approach was direct, in the language that southerners could easily understand. As Atwater put it, "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.'" Eventually they couldn't get away with that. When African-Americans were no longer the silent oppressed minority you couldn't get away with using that kind of language. Blacks were put off by it and a growing number of Whites were put off by it as well. The message had to change.

The message did change and went to talking about supporting states' rights and being opposed to forced busing for racial integration of schools. These were things you could talk about without seeming overtly racist by doing so. Who wouldn't support states' rights against an oppressive federal government? Who wouldn't be opposed to busing kids out of their own neighborhoods to schools halfway across town just for racial integration? Forced busing was disruptive. It cost taxpayers money. It just wasn't right. Or so the story went.

The message eventually turned even more abstract and went to terms of cutting taxes and advocating "smaller, less intrusive government." It all sounded nice and friendly. The terms were so generic that even those who weren't racists themselves could support those ideas. As Lee Atwater put it, the net effect is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. The original racist goal is being achieved but in terms so carefully crafted that people aren't aware of what's going on. This is the language of "code speak," saying in kinder, gentler terms those ideas that would be distasteful if plainly spoken. It's happening right now. Laws are being proposed and enacted using coded language meant to spread a racist agenda to hurt African-Americans at the expense of a few Whites who might get caught in the crossfire. The old guard refuses to walk away quietly and they're training fresh acolytes to take up their fight, many of whom aren't aware of the roots of their cause.

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