The Correlation Between Race and Party in the South

This piece was published as a newspaper op/ed in early October, 2021.

One of the pleasures derived from the classical detective story comes from how the detective – like Sherlock Holmes – can infer big truths from small clues.

Here’s one such small clue—one that provides a window into a big truth in American politics:

In most states of the former Confederacy, the party allegiance breaks down starkly along racial lines: the region’s whites vote overwhelmingly Republican, while the blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

(A white person in South Carolina is more than eight times as likely to identify as Republican as a black person.)

What does that correlation mean? Why, in that region, is the political battle set up to be a battle between the races?

One might suppose that it means that the interests of whites and those of blacks are starkly different. But I would assert that – at least in the most obvious sense – that is untrue.

By “most obvious sense,” I mean this: If one were to compile a list of potential measures that would enhance the lives of white people, and another list of those that would enhance the lives of black people, I would assert that – overwhelmingly — the two lists would overlap.

White and black families would likewise benefit from a thriving economy, clean environment, good schools, well-maintained roads, domestic tranquility, etc.

Admittedly, there would be some divergence of interests. Given that, in America, wealth and social class have some correlation with race, and given that people’s interests can differ depending on their socio-economic situation, one would expect that the different races would not be completely equally distributed between major political parties.

But – if one regards people’s “rational” interests being the conditions of their own lives — it is hard to find any rational reason for the stark divide we see between the racial groups.

If such rational interests can’t account for the political battle being been made into an arena for the races to struggle against each other for power, what can explain it?

The answer begins to emerge if we look at the history of the racial divide in the region’s politics.

Before the mid-60s, the region was called “the Solid South.” At that time, the South was solidly Democratic. Then Civil Rights legislation got enacted, over the vehement objections of the segregationist South, pushed by a Democratic President (LBJ). A few years later, the Republican candidate for President (Richard Nixon) got elected using his “Southern strategy” – i.e. by tapping into the resentment among Southern whites about the laws granting blacks greater equality.

Over the following several decades, Southern whites migrated from the Democratic Party to once again become the Solid South, only this time solidly Republican.

We could trace that division between the races in the region much further back — back through the Jim Crow era (when blacks were kept from voting at all), all the way to the pre-Civil-War period (when blacks were slaves and not citizens).

But there’s no need to look to the distant past. Even within living memory, it has been a matter of overriding concern to a major portion of the whites of the states of the former Confederacy to maintain the blacks in a position of subordination.

Not the rational interest of the conditions of their own lives, but a fixation on maintaining a position of superiority over others.

It has been famously called “America’s original sin”: i.e. that racism whose importance for understanding the American story so many in the Republican world nowadays so adamantly deny.

That denial of the importance of racism is something I’ve addressed here twice previously:

  • I’ve noted the consensus, among serious historians, that the Civil War was fought over whether the slave system — founded on the notion that it was right for white people to treat black people as a special kind of livestock, not endowed by their Creator with certain “unalienable rights” (as white people had been) – would be allowed to expand.
  • Another refutation of that denial I’ve cited is found in the fact that black parents all over the nation – in today’s America — feel it of vital importance to give their children – especially their sons – “the Talk” so they will know how to deal with an encounter with any policeman so that they don’t end up dead. While white parents feel no such need. (There’s no alternative explanation of that racial difference.)

And here – in the correlation between race and political party in many of the former states of the Confederacy — is yet another clue:

Even though Americans of all races would be better off working together to make a society in which everyone is safe, healthy, well-fed, educated, and happy, in one of our nation’s regions the partisan struggle for political power is instead a battle between the races.

The mystery we began with is solved. And even if it is not a “crime” that gets explained, it is an important kind of brokenness: So long as it is important to people that some other group is held down, and not granted equality of power and respect, conflict and not cooperation will prevail. And everyone’s lives will be the lesser for it.

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