The New Race Game of Southern Politics: How Does It Work?

The American South has always been different because of its political "peculiarity."

Or, to put it more accurately and bluntly, this region has historically practiced a stubborn, unsavory racial politics in a nation that formally subscribes to the self-evident truth that all people are "created equal" and whose children regularly pledge "liberty and justice for all."

The South has maintained its peculiar ways through slavery, segregation, and discrimination -- even into the 21st century.

Frankly, I know the Southern "race game" inside and out! I have been around Southern politics -- as a native Southerner, political scientist, and public official -- since the days of Dr. King and Governor Wallace. I have lived, studied, and politicked with the best and the worst of the race-gamers -- white and black -- for decades since then. I can attest that racial politics here is still an intriguing, enduring, dark aspect of American democracy.

I can also argue that the South's new racial politics is different. It is not where it ought to be; and much progress lies ahead. But, in important respects, today's race game is strangely functional for a transforming regional system.

How Does the New Game Differ from the Old Game?

Let's back up for a minute and explain the old race game.

From their early beginnings, white leaders and people of this region engaged in a society designed to provide themselves the blessings of democracy while oppressing, exploiting, and discriminating against their fellow human beings of African origin and heritage. It constituted a perverse, contorted, racist system.

However, Southern politics has evolved into a qualitatively different system in the 21st century. Most importantly, both whites and blacks now participate in a process that can best be described as biracial accommodation, a new regime as evidenced in substance, style, strategies, operations and outcomes.

Race-based Campaigning and Governing

In this evolving system, new-order Southerners of both races candidly calculate and calibrate racial factors -- while carefully avoiding divisive rhetoric and moral stigma -- in their particular spheres of regional politics.

Most commonly, competing politicians and parties try to appeal to both sides of the ideological spectrum in moderate public discourse. Seldom is heard the language of "white supremacy" and "black separatism"; but, often, critical operations are geared to their respective hard-core constituencies. Behind the scenes and through functionaries, white and black Democrats and Republicans play to their core racial bases with battle-tested calculations and calibrations of issues and resources.

Illustrative of such campaigning is the now standard formula for successful election in Southern politics. Few promote it in public discussion; however, Southern political insiders -- politicians and operatives, whites and blacks, D's and R's alike -- understand, and they've conducted formulaic racial campaigns for the past quarter century.

In Alabama, for example, culture, demographics, and history dictate, in shorthand politicalese, that a Democrat usually needs to win 90+ percent of the black vote and at least 40 percent of the white vote to get elected to public office statewide; conversely, a Republican can win with 60+ percent of the white vote and only 10 percent of the black vote. The numbers vary and shift according to the particular candidates, issues, and venues; but this statistical framework is the standard fundament of Alabama politics.

Most successful Southern politicos automatically think in such terms, and they develop and implement specific percentage targets for their political endeavors.

Usually, such campaign practices work in acceptable manner and direction. Sometimes, however, as politicking intensifies, the race game retrogresses; and in difficult contextual situations, leaders of both races and parties demean themselves and the democratic process on behalf of demanding constituencies, narrow objectives, and backward politics.

This approach also dominates post-election dealings behind the closed doors of government -- in Southern city halls, county courthouses, state capitals, and Washington, DC. Public debate normally involves grand ideas about fairness, openness, and opportunity for the middle class and working people; but in the closed confines of political power, the discussion often is clear and direct, spoken in the language of specific policies and other payoffs according to racial considerations.

White and black leaders negotiate, often cordially but sometimes heatedly, on important considerations of politics and policy. Critical issue positions, legislative votes, employment practices, political appointments, redistricting efforts, constituent services, financial arrangements, and other aspects of prospective public service have been subject to race-gaming for several decades.

Stubborn Legacies and Functional Progress

Philosophical purists, especially outside observers, may find my account confusing and disturbing. But this is the way that politics works in a region that disproportionately bears the overlapped, negative imprint of America's racial and economic past.

Southern politicians, like those of other areas, pander to their base constituencies -- the majority white electorate for Republicans and core black voters for the Democrats -- and this tendency can take exaggerated and uncivic character in the social, cultural, economic, and demographic context of Southern political heritage. Racial politicking is particularly obvious and brazen in Deep South areas with historic tensions, large numbers of minorities, significant poverty, and opportunistic politicians.

Of course, I cannot leave this explanation of the new Southern race game without stating that the same game plays, in varying degrees, throughout the country. It is more stereotypical and problematic in the South due to the region's history and stubborn legacies; but you'll find similar practices in national politics and many state/urban areas where race is a major factor. But that is the subject for a full and frank discussion separate from this session on the Southern race game.

In conclusion, the main point of this post is that both races now participate in Southern politics; and black-white accommodation has assumed a certain level of acceptability and functionality in the South's new race game. There's still much to be done to improve Southern democracy; but, strange as it sounds, such politicking represents progress in this part of the country.

In my next post, I'll elaborate about this "halfway house of racialized politics" in the 21st century South.

Disclosure and Acknowledgement: This series includes edited, updated material from one of my books: The South's New Racial Politics: Inside the Race game of Recent Southern History (2009): and portions of these posts will be included in an upcoming book. I'm grateful to NewSouth Books for allowing me to borrow from those publications for my discussions on the Huffington Post.