Flipping the 'Race Card' | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Flipping the 'Race Card'


I almost spewed coffee all over my screen. I had just opened a "Haley Barbour" news alert and read that our esteemed former governor had accused Democrats of playing the "race card."

"Name a campaign in the last 25 years where the Dems didn't play the race card," Barbour told BuzzFeed. "Surprise!"

Indeed, it is not surprising to see a leader of a party that is getting more white as the years go by complain that someone who challenges racism is "playing the race card."

It's not really any more surprising than listening to people who know little about what's actually in Obamacare or what he really did on Medicare or welfare, but who loathe Barack Obama for reasons they can't quite place. Or the folks who love to spew that Obama (and any fool who would support him) are socialists! Or communists! (Nope, he's not either.)

Of course, neither were most people in the 1960s who believed blacks should be able to vote or use public restrooms--but those, uh, radicals were called socialists and communists by people with similar regressive ideals for America as too many in today's GOP.

But to hear Barbour put himself out there as the arbiter of what is and is not racism, or the "race card," would be hilarious if not so infuriating. Barbour long ago sold out his home state of Mississippi, back when he helped his mentor, the political strategist Lee Atwater, and neo-Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan infect the nation with the "southern strategy"--the game of appealing to the worst natures of white Americans.

There is no secret here--at least inside the Washington beltway or in political circles anywhere in America. It is fact, and a simple narrative: After the national Democratic Party rejected the segregationist demands of the Dixiecrats back in the 1960s, it lost the racist white vote of the south and beyond. The Republican Party, a fiscally reasonable party that was actually the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, saw a way to then remake itself and fatten its ranks: It went after those southern whites who were, then, ticked off over forced integration.

That set off a decades-long party switcheroo that seems to have come into full fruition this year. Remember: This is the same party that African Americans used to be proud members of before it turned on them in the 1960s. Now, it has become the party of corporate barons that is willing to stop at nothing to get people who won't benefit from their policies to vote for the candidates they back--who are willing to sell Americans up a racist river.

And that is the part that makes me the angriest: The elite leaders of the Republican Party and their wealthiest backers are just fine with their belief that most white people are racist. Or at least racist enough to believe outright lies about Obama (go to factcheck.org) designed to make white people think a black president is going to "redistribute" what they worked so hard for and turn it over to "his" people. (And they're not picturing the Irish side.)

We've been down this road many times since the GOP embraced this disgusting strategy: the Willie Horton scare ad, the black "welfare mothers" myth, the debunked young black "super-predator" crime hysteria hawked by Bill Bennett and other GOP drug "czars."

All of these ploys came straight from the Atwater-Barbour playbook. Say something to make scared white people conjure up visions of black folks taking their stuff or hurting their women; then blame the "liberal media" if you're called out on it--or, more recently, say that the person challenging your brilliance is "playing the race card." Then all the whiteys will flock to the polls, vote against their best interests and help enrich the Koch Brothers even more, even as they lose their right to sue negligent doctors and corporations, watch educational opportunities shrink and go back to pre-Obama health-insurance nightmares.

Skeptical? Here's how now-deceased Lee Atwater explained the southern strategy in 1981, during the first year Ronald Reagan was president, in an interview with a Case Western Reserve University political-science professor. "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Ngger, ngger, ngger,'" Atwater explained. "By 1968, you can't say 'ngger'--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." (I added the asterisks.)

This nasty stuff has infected Republican strategy now for too many years. Not every Republican agrees, of course. In fact, when Ken Mehlman was Republican National Committee chairman in 2005, he apologized for the GOP's use of the southern strategy to the NAACP's annual convention.

"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," Mehlman said, as reported by USA Today. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

He continued: "It's not healthy for the country for our political parties to be so racially polarized. Just as the Democrats came to this (black) community in 1964 with something real to offer, today we Republicans have something that should cause you to take another look at the party of Lincoln."

Mehlman was right, but the GOP didn't take his advice with Mitt Romney now abandoning his more moderate roots to double down on whiteness. It is ugly with false ads about welfare flashing sympathetic white faces and even Romney himself telling birther jokes. Many misinformed people actually believe Obama is a Muslim--when he's the only mainline Protestant at the top of either ticket.

Then, if any of us dare to talk about the race-baiting, or even stand up and say "STOP treating whites like racists!," Barbour and his buddies blame us for bringing up race when they're the ones in the lily-white party trying to run on whiteness while they still can.

It's never been easy to call out racism. They will always call us socialist, communist, angry or worse. This is nothing new.

The good news is that with younger generations of all races who are sick of racism and don't want to just be in roomfuls of people of only one race, the southern strategy's days are numbered. Let's stand together and end it this year. Maybe then, the GOP can feel free to again become the Party of Lincoln.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Wow. Reported by the Washington Post from Tampa.

Here's an idea, Sen. Graham: Stop doubling down on whiteness and start adopting policies that show that you care more about rich white men. Stop lying about welfare in ads designed to make it look like Obama is taking more white money and giving it to black people. And stop running on crazy, backward policies that even Republican women are stunned over.

Seriously. Change.


BlackSheep1 5 years, 9 months ago

Uhhh....I think that should read "that show that you care about more than just rich white men." No? Not trying to read your mind but I think that's what you meant, D.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

Yes. Funny error. ;-)

Thanks for pointing it out!


brjohn9 5 years, 9 months ago

The latest NBC/WSJ poll shows support for Romney among African Americans at zero percent. I guess that proves racists aren't the only ones who can hear the dog whistle for what it is.

In fact, speaking of demographics, this analysis by Nate Silver should give the Republicans sleepless nights. What's most interesting about it to me is that it's actually an argument against the demographics hypothesis. The analysis is complex, but essentially what he shows is that focusing on demographics alone can be misleading. At least as important is the fact that Republicans are doing worse and worse with minority voters, especially hispanics. The Republicans can afford to lose the hispanic vote by 10 points. They cannot afford to lose it by 30 points, and that's where things stand now.

Something about chickens coming home to roost seems appropriate.

From Silver's analysis:

"So suppose that the turnout demographics this year look like 2004, when 77 percent of the electorate was white. Furthermore, suppose that Mr. Romney receives the same proportion of the white vote that George W. Bush did in 2004.

However, we’ll assume that Mr. Obama does retain one advantage from 2008. Although fewer minorities turn out, those that do vote for him in the same proportions as 2008, meaning that he gets about 95 percent of the African-American vote, and about two-thirds of the vote from Hispanics, Asians and other racial minorities.

These assumptions yield a very close election — but Mr. Obama wins the popular vote. Specifically, he wins it by about 1.7 percentage points."


swisha31 5 years, 9 months ago

I was JUST debating this on FB with a republican who lacked any sense of history. incredible article.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

Thanks. Both Democrats' and Republicans' ignorance of political-party history in the U.S. is very harmful. And knowing the history can show how it's possible to change a political party (either direction).

I remember being shocked when I first started learning the state's political race history from political-science professors at Mississippi State. Then, I chose to study this history much deeper over the years.

I hope and pray that this election will prove that this strategy will no longer work at least on a national level. It's time that politicians stop treating white Americans like we're racist -- and for white Americans to get educated enough about what racism actually is (not calling out racism) that they stop feeding into this very racist political strategy.


stprather 5 years, 9 months ago

Excellent article Donna. I fully agree, though I also believe the leadership of the Democratic party, as witnessed in the Obama administration, have so adapted themselves to corporate power that they cannot speak meaningfully or boldly about the racial components of our society. Obama's striking omission of all talk of race, and his refusal to take stances on the issues most explicitly linked to it (such as the war on drugs or prison-industrial complex) is a clear sign that Dems often lack moral backbone here, too.

I worry especially about the new '2016' movie showing in theaters, where the far-right wing Indian-American director gives credence to the racism of the GOP by "uncovering" Obama's true identity as grounded in his African father's anti-colonialism -- which of course turns out to equal anti-Americanism. I have several MS family members who I know have seen that film and left feeling totally persuaded Obama is trying to turn "our America" into one of "those" countries. (there's a great JFP article to be written there, by the way!!!)


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

I'm sure it is. I hate to have to sit through it, though, in order to write about it. Especially if it's a theater with birthers in it. Maybe I can get a review copy.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

I'm also not sure Democratic leaders should be talking about race. I think that's up to we-the-people. I always say we expect our leaders to do too much -- including stuff we should be doing. So I'm doing my part. ;-)

And you'll never get me to say that either party has actual moral backbone. That's why I don't identify as a party member, and choose based on candidate, facts and current platform. To be honest, though, I'm not sure the two-party system allows much moral backbone -- certainly not in a world where corporations are considered people with First Amendment rights. Not sure it's possible, but that's another conversation.

That said, it's taken some degree of moral backbone to do right, but politically risky things such as health-care reform and even supporting gay marriage. It might have been later than it should have been, but it happened.


stprather 5 years, 9 months ago

Right, well I didn't mean to imply Obama or his spokespersons should make an explicit agenda of it -- I just meant that they have allowed their policies and overall rhetoric to be so manipulated by the right-wing narratives that they end up unable to take a strong stance on issues that disproportionately affect the black and brown poor. Of course our leaders job is specific policy goals, but it's also to lead with vision and honesty, and it's hard for me to see how any admin could address the War on Drugs or prison labor or these new voter ID laws without ever mentioning race. And so I just think we have to admit that the moral problem driving the "southern strategy" isn't limited to the GOP, when we see that -- for all the genuine progress Obama's election represents -- he knows he still can't go anywhere near racially-charged issues without a world of "race card flipping" backlash, and so his answer is to strategically distance himself. Ta-Nehesi Coates's essay in the recent Atlantic, "Fear of a Black President," lays out this racial paradox with nuance and depth.

I'm not blaming him or Dems alone for our political context, and I agree with you that de-moralization has largely to do with corporate power's influence over our political process. But the Obama admin made their bed, too, and I feel he's been a far too-willing servant of narrow monied interest. I agree he's done some good -- you mention his support of gay marriage, and of course DADT and the Lilly-Ledbetter Act -- but even with his centerpiece healthcare bill, I find it shameful how little genuine reform it actually pushes. Perhaps it's not his fault that it's "politically risky" to try to minimally expand coverage for the poor, but our whole conversation about that legislation would look different if we had mainstream leaders independent from the insurance lobbies and others who have a vested interest in prohibiting any real alternative to the current system.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

Just saw this. No, the "southern strategy" is a distinct Republican strategy; that part is just fact and undisputable political history. That doesn't mean that Dems do not ever do things to appeal to people of specific races -- of course they do. But a primary difference tends to be that, for the most part, Dems are trying to help or ensure the rights of non-whites, while the current GOP is trying to attack and lessen the rights.

And, of course, Obama races a "racial paradox." The GOP does everything they can to paint him as an angry black man eager to spread "entitlements" to all of "his people" while undermining the gains of American colonialism (see D'Souza's mythical world). And that's without him pretty much ever mentioning race.

But so what? It's not it's up to Obama alone to get any of this done -- and at least he is trying. And of course, the ACA isn't an ideal bill. I'm sure you noticed what he went through to get it through Congress? That's not "shameful"; that's political reality. Hopefully, the bill can be improved if Romney isn't elected and sets out to appeal the whole thing on day one like he's promised.

The truth about Obama is that he has tried to bring more positive and progressive (not left-wing, especially considering how many ideas he took from Republicans, too) change to our nation than any president in recent history. I really hope we give him a chance to finish what he started rather than elect someone whose only agenda seems to be to dismantle everything that has been accomplished so far and to take us backward.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

He's also said that he wants to pursue more campaign finance reform (or whatever it's called now). If nothing but that happened in a second term, that would be something. Of course, we can see why the Kochs et all are pumping so much money into Romney's campaign. They don't want to lose their ability to buy elected officials.


stprather 5 years, 9 months ago

Thanks for your response and continued engagement on this question, Donna. Just to restate what I sad above about the "southern strategy" -- my claim was not that Democrats had also been responsible for the historically specific goals that phrase refers to, but that they are also complicit in the "moral problem driving" it. Part of this moral problem, as I see it, is to accept (even for pragmatically noble ends) that "political reality" is so determined by right-wing agendas that no serious discussion of race and related topics can be on the policy table. Perhaps you disagree that the Democratic party is complicit in accepting (and to that extent, helping to perpepuate) the political landscape we have, and if so, we may have reached an ideological impasse based on what we think is politically "realistic". But, at any rate, I hope that clears up the actual claim I was making above, which was not about the "southern strategy" itself, but the general absence of any serious discussion of race in the national political discourse.

As far as this election, I'm with you -- I very much hope Romney doesn't win; but I'm not as optimistic as you about Obama's noble intentions. There's too much of a mismatch between his rhetoric and his record for me to believe he's simply helpless before the evil forces across the aisle. I, for one -- and I think many other "idealistic" young folk, progressives and leftists -- would still be in Obama's corner if he had put his money where his mouth was on campaign finance reform, not been arguably more hawkish than Bush on foreign policy, not passed the NDAA and other civil-liberty eroding acts, said or done anything about what Michelle Alexander calls "the New Jim Crow" (the atrocious prison-industrial complex) or its close ally (the War on Drugs), not so quickly erased the words "public option" from his healthcare agenda and replaced it with state-optional expanded coverage which further benefits the private insurance industry, and surrounded himself with an economic team that wasn't chock full of pro-Wall St advisers. Perhaps the "political reality" is that you have to get your hands a little dirty to plant some seeds of change, but most of us are also aware how much a candidate's "reality" is shaped by the people with whom they willingly surround themselves and the Big Money they choose to accept.


donnaladd 5 years, 9 months ago

Stprather, I saw what you'd posted. Perhaps I didn't state my point clearly enough. I think everyone is complicit in allowing this charade of a political race strategy continue: not enough people call it out for what it is. And I think the Democratic Party -- which I'm no huge fan of, although it's sure better than it was before the party switch -- has been way too timid over the years about speaking up about progressive ideas, and let the right-wing (and corporate GOP) define it. It's doing a better job now.

I will add that it's hard to break through in the national discourse if the media won't cover you. And the corporate media have been terrified of upsetting the right for years now (thank, in no small part to Barbour's anti-"liberal media" label for anything reported that he didn't like). So it's hard to have that national dialogue. But I'm sure for having it.

And, yes, Obama faced massive political realities -- in no small part because the Blue Dog Dems were afraid to appear remotely progressive (and most of them lost, which is just as well; that includes Childers). I also think it's shortsighted and a bit naive for anyone to expect these issues will be resolved in four years, especially with the climate in Washington -- and the abject refusal of Republicans to work with Obama even on their own ideas.

I truly hope, and believe, that President Obama will be more proactive on the War on Drugs and the prison mess in his second term, and we should demand it. We know his opponent won't be.


blackwatch 5 years, 9 months ago

Awesome discussion.

I agree that Pres. Obama has been painted with the old Southern Strategy, and he has been far too silent on things racial in terms of policy (he has some good rhetoric in his Fahter's Day Speeches to black Churches and his White House Intitiative on Fatherhood), but he is very light policy-wise on issues of poverty and systemic racism. Perhaps the discourses of institutional and structural analysis are too "heady" for a mainstream electorate, but, for the purposes of devloping policy, a Black President, really any President, must have those discussions and policies to warrant such high levels of support from the Black community.

I would also hope that he could do more with a 2nd term, I truly believe he wants to do more. I agree with Scott in that he did surround himself with too many wall St. types to be taken seriously as a progressive on the economic front (though I am willing to bet that was a political strategy dreamt up by the Rahm Emmanuals and David Axelorods of his inner circle, more so than his actually economic perspective). My wife calls him an economic neo-con with progressive rhetoric. At any rate, he definitely ran far more progressively than he has governed and I think he missed a great opportunity to truly transform the political discourse because of it. Has he lost enough of his core supporters to lose? I hope not, but I think the repubs. have actually helped by, as Donna notes, doubling down on white racism. Had they ran a younger version of McCain, they would have a legitimate shot at the White house, but I think they have pandered too much to the "Tea-Party" types to gain enough independents to unseat Obama, at least, I hope so.

Again, great discussion!

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