Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From Now On, Is Everything About Race???

Over the past week, especially since President Obama’s health care speech to Congress, the political debate in Washington and across the country has reached a heightened sense of craziness. Crystallized by the outburst of South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson—and the subsequent vote of disapproval in the House yesterday—the issue of race has once again been raised. Wilson’s “You lie!” comment has been interpreted in a variety of ways, with many arguing that racism lies not far beneath the surface. The most high profile advocate of this position is former President jimmy Carter. Commentary about Wilson’s motivations has been more divided.

As readers of this blog know, the role of race in American politics and society fascinates me. The Obama candidacy and now presidency have presented us with the opportunity to look, perhaps as never before, at how race defines and divides us. In theorizing about race, though, we need to be extremely careful—not because of the sensitivity of the issue and a fear of being either too overly or insufficiently “politically correct”—but because of how difficult it is to prove anything, especially when it comes to individuals’ motivations, beliefs, and biases. A case for such humility was made recently by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his blog over at The Atlantic (one of my favorites).

So having said this, I want to proceed gingerly in talking about this series of events. Nonetheless, the Wilson case brings to the fore some fascinating political/geographical history--stuff that gets us excited here. Whenever I’ve ventured to talk about race, especially in terms of its salience in the south, I turn to the great work by V.O. Key, “Southern Politics,” originally published in 1949. Key’s work was a landmark study of how the “solid south” evolved in the post-bellum south. In his introduction, Key argues

In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro. It is at times interpreted as a politics of cotton, as a politics of free trade, as a politics of agrarian poverty, or as a politics of planter and plutocrat. Although such interpretations have a superficial validity, in the last analysis the major peculiarities of southern politics go back to the Negro. Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.

The main “peculiarity” Key explores is why traditional two party politics never emerged in the south after the Civil War. Whereas “rational” politics entails conflicts around economic issues—and thus divides the classes—such cleavages never took hold in the south’s politics. The reason, for Key, was because the fear of black advancement and political political power united both rich and poor whites. Even though poor whites and blacks shared many economic interests, an alliance between the two never congealed. Thus, southern politics was more factional than ideological, playing out completely within the arena of the Democratic party which, due to Jim Crow, was a totally white enterprise.

In Key’s analysis of individual southern states, he found that this type of politics was most entrenched in those areas with the largest black populations. The “blacker” a state or county, the greater incentive there was for whites to unite. Of all the southern states, South Carolina had the second largest black population, second only to Mississippi. In fact, Key entitled his chapter on the Palmetto State “The Politics of Color.” He opens this chapter by noting:

South Carolina has had a succession of spectacular race orators who almost blanket out the achievements of its abler and more temperate leaders, such as James F. Byrnes. While others shared their views, the politicians of South Carolina—and Mississippi—have put the white-supremacy case most bitterly, most uncompromisingly, most vindictively.

Does this history make Joe Wilson’s outburst racist? Who knows. Is he responsible for this history? Of course not. But history is hard to escape and it shapes people’s context and it shapes our culture. And when we’re discussing American history and especially that of the south and its politics, we can’t ignore race, even though doing so would make us more comfortable. We should also recognize that others will consider it and have their own judgments shaped by their particular experiences and histories. An interesting aspect of the Wilson brouhaha has been the role played by fellow SC congressman, and Democratic Whip, James Clyburn. Clyburn represents the neighboring district in the state and has a storied personal history as a leader of the civil rights struggle there. That he was the member driving the move to admonish Wilson should remind us how personal this issue can be.

Interestingly—and here we can find more sure footing—when one looks at Congressman Wilson’s district, one finds that his district is not one where we’d expect quite the level of demagoguery that Key described. The 2nd District finds itself, of the state’s 6, in the middle in terms of its racial composition. It is the third “blackest” with African Americans making up roughly 26% of the population. Also, it has the highest median income in the state and the highest proportion of residents with a college degree. Recent conventional wisdom has suggested that those with higher incomes and education will be the least likely to hold unenlightened views on race. In last year’s presidential race the 2nd was Obama’s third best district, giving him 45% of the vote. Furthermore, as has been noted at length over the past week, Wilson had a relatively close re-election last time, garnering only 54% of the vote. Both candidates have used the events of the past week to rake in huge sums of money for next year’s rematch. Thus, there doesn't seem to be much incentive, in a purely political sense, for Wilson to become the new incarnation of George Wallace.

So where does this leave us??? The fact that we’ve been focused on the meaning of two words over the past week—and that this meaning has been interpreted by many to have sinister racial undertones—tells us that we’ve not yet arrived at a mythical “post racial” America. Given our history and how much in is entwined into our consciousness, perhaps we never will. Where it does leave us is with a realization that these types of debates, clashes, and parsings of words are going to be with us for a while. The Obama presidency makes this unavoidable. However much we might want our political fights (in the best sense of the word) to be “just” about health care, the economy, education, and the like, they won’t be. Beneath the surface of all of these will be the unspoken, and often loudly spoken, role of race in America. We best proceed humbly.
**Top image, slave map of South Carolina, originally published in The Atlantic in 1861.

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