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The Race Game of American Democracy

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My discomforting series about the Southern race game leads inevitably to an equally discomforting discussion about what Gunnar Myrdal called "America's dilemma" six decades ago.

According to my analysis, the Southern political system has changed substantially over the past half-century. This region is ideologically "redder" than most; but it has evolved beyond racial perversities and contortions of the Old South. Race relations in this part of the country are still problematic; but the regional situation now is simply a more obvious and intense case of the American racial problem. Perhaps the time has come for the South and America to talk as a nation about our common situation.

It is difficult for a Southerner to raise this issue; so I will let others address the problem of the national race game.

Regional Commonalities

First is Thomas Sugrue, a Detroit native and University of Pennsylvania historian. In Sweet Land of Liberty, an almost encyclopedic volume on the northern civil rights movement, Sugrue recently noted a serious consequence of conventional history's focus on the heroic drama in the South:

Though the differences between North and South were real, our emphasis on southern exceptionalism has led historians, journalists, and political commentators to overlook the commonalities across regions. The long and well-publicized history of racial atrocities in the South gave northerners a badge of honor, a sense that they were not part of America's troubled racial history.

Racial inequalities -- both before and after the civil rights movement -- took different form and nature on the two sides of the Mason-Dixon line, Sugrue argued; and he replicated Myrdal's indictment for the twenty-first century:

While the situation of blacks -- north and south -- was unmistakably better at the turn of the twenty-first century than it had been at the turn of the twentieth, the history of the black freedom struggle, especially in the North, is not just one of victories. It is full of paradoxes and ambiguities, of unfinished battles and devastating defeats.

Sugrue also provided convincing evidence for his regional assertion:

A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation -- New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California -- are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third world level among African Americans in nearly every major northern city, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.

Convenient Conceit

Furthermore, Brooklyn-based, Berkeley-educated journalist Jacob Levenson has concluded that, for most outsiders, the South serves mainly to make America feel comfortable with its racial dilemma. After spending time in Alabama researching AIDS among blacks, he wrote in "Divining Dixie":

Nobody seems to know exactly what to make of the South anymore... when we do think of it, it is often frozen in time: Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Selma or [Birmingham Police Commissioner] Bull Connor's men spraying fire hoses on civil rights marchers. Those are the images rehashed on PBS, anyway. Strangely, we seem to treasure those black-and-white memories, and when we drag them out, we do it with a sort of pride. It's as if they remind and reassure us that we are a people who will stare down hatred and injustice. They serve as symbols of what we'd like to think we're not.

Levenson bluntly slams these prideful memories as provincial and artificial conceit. He says the South, thereby serves as a convenient foil for national deficiencies; but, he claims, in many ways, it "provides a revealing reflection of America and what we've become."

Limiting our National Commitment

In a sense, Levenson suggested, stereotyping the South actually limits our commitment to a bolder agenda as a nation:

The difficulty with this enterprise is that the South is still often cast as completely other. So... talking about race in the South becomes a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country. It's a point worth highlighting, and it extends beyond race... the political horse race stories that can casually frame God, guns, and gays as southern concerns promise to oversimplify southerners' relationship to these issues, and, at the same time, relegate the national struggle to come to terms with these same issues to the periphery of the debate.

Levenson went on to say that the South offers the nation an opportunity to recognize and address its own dark issues:

... it strikes me that one of the basic tensions that threads its way through many southern stories has to do with whether the region is still chained to its racial past, or whether it has reached catharsis, redeemed itself, and joined the rest of the country... I would suggest just the opposite, that the South is on the leading edge of a whole series of stories that are vital to the rest of the country because it has been forced, largely by virtue of its racial past, to publicly confront issues that the rest of the nation has been able to avoid.

Certainly, neither Sugrue nor Levenson is a fan of Dixie, or the Southern race game. However, their works should be required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the peculiar South and the continuing challenge of race in America.

Concluding Comment

Thus I conclude this eight-part series on the South's new race game. This interpretive analysis has been hard on the South -- and it closed with a sobering reminder that racism is not simply a regional problem. The South has made progress; in fact, it looks more like today's America than the Old South. But, when all is said and done, we all have a lot of work to do, in this region and the nation, before the "race game" becomes an historical footnote.

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.