Atwater’s Progeny and the South’s Marginalization

Thanks to Obama's election and re-election, racial prejudice dares to speak its name again — but in a South that's cutting itself off
Official White House photo
Atwater in 1989

One of the ironies of our African-American president is that he — or, more accurately, the unhinged reaction to him — has made a portion of the world safe again for unabashed racism.

The racism is not a good development, of course, but the openness is. It’s edifying to those of us who knew dog-whistle terms like “welfare queen,” “states’ rights” and “unnecessary social programs” had a racial foundation but watched the Jesse Helmses of the world duck just far enough behind the scrim of plausible deniability to get away with it. For 40-something years, roughly since 1970, the savvier conservative candidates — especially in the South — have evaded charges of racism through a political code that was largely the work of South Carolina’s own Lee Atwater.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’” the GOP political consultant said in a notorious interview in 1981, at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution and 10 years before Atwater’s death, at 40, of brain cancer. You’ve probably seen this, but it’s worth requoting for its brutal matter-of-factness:

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.”

It came to be known as the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy,” and it’s evolved into a national one; high-profile conservatives in D.C. are still following the Atwater playbook. But since ’09 and the rise of the Tea Party, the rank-and-file in places like Lee Atwater’s home state are rising up to ditch that tap-dancing “code” nonsense and sound their moronic yawp like real men. Here’s a savvy entrepreneur who made a big hit at a Tea Party convention in Myrtle Beach over the weekend by selling t-shirts portraying the first African-American president as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose:

Bob Cramer, a Myrtle Beach local, told Palmetto Public Record that his homemade airbrushed shirt is meant to be a comment about President Obama’s “takeover of medicine” through the Affordable Care Act. The shirt claims that Obama-the-medicine man is “your new doctor, coming soon to a clinic near you!”

“Some people tell me it’s racist, but it’s not racist — it’s political,” Cramer said. “Matter of fact, that’s how I got invited here.”

Cramer said so many tea party attendees have asked him about the shirt that he’s considering bringing order forms to the convention on its second day. Speakers at the Tea Party convention include U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan and Tom Rice, Sen. Tim Scott, Gov. Nikki Haley, and Attorney General Alan Wilson.

It’s not racist — it’s political. Oh. These adventures in idiocy can be as enlightening and clarifying as they are nauseating, despite Bob’s insistence that there’s nothing racist about African Tribesman Obama. (It’s hardly the first appearance for that particular rendering, either, and the South has no monopoly on it.)

But just maybe there’s another kind of price to be paid for waving the Stars and Bars with that much enthusiasm. Remember Lyndon Johnson’s famous remark, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that the Democrats had lost the South for a generation? Well, it’s been two, and suddenly the South seems in some ways as culturally isolated as it was in 1960:

Every demographic and political trend that helped to reëlect Barack Obama runs counter to the region’s self-definition: the emergence of a younger, more diverse, more secular electorate, with a libertarian bias on social issues and immigration; the decline of the exurban life style, following the housing bust; the class politics, anathema to pro-business Southerners, that rose with the recession; the end of America’s protracted wars, with cuts in military spending bound to come. The Solid South speaks less and less for America and more and more for itself alone.

Solidity has always been the South’s strength, and its weakness. The same Southern lock that once held the Democratic Party now divides the Republican Party from the socially liberal, fiscally moderate tendencies of the rest of America. The Southern bloc in the House majority can still prevent the President from enjoying any major legislative achievements, but it has no chance of enacting an agenda, and it’s unlikely to produce a nationally popular figure.

As its political power declines, the South might occupy a place like Scotland’s in the United Kingdom, as a cultural draw for the rest of the country, with a hint of the theme park.

It turns out that an emerging class of young, socially liberal, fiscally conservative, minority-friendly Republicans in places like Philadelphia and Duluth and Denver might not see alliance with Bob Cramer and his witch-doctor shirts as palatable, or politically smart. Maybe, in its own way, the South is seceding after all — but with a gradual, cultural, self-imposed, semi-conscious marginalization instead of with shots on Fort Sumter. (Although, really, we’re talking about South Carolina here, so who knows?)

The phenomenon, if it develops, puts Charlotte in an odd spot, too. White people are a minority now. The mayor’s black. You’re at least as likely to run into someone from Rochester, N.Y., while strolling down College Street as a native Charlottean. Will Charlotte eventually have to demur to visitors that it hasn’t left the South, but the South left it?

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest