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Inside the South's Halfway House of Racialized Politics

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A half century after the civil rights movement, blacks and whites in the South seemingly have come to terms -- terms that will amaze outsiders -- about living together in a halfway house of racialized politics. A new race game has taken hold as the region develops a biracial, functioning politics despite its hard history and lingering legacies of race and racism.

The Old South Is Dead, But Racialized Politics Prevails

For most Southerners, the Old South is dead; Southern Democracy is a memory; the Republican Revolution has been consolidated; and two-party competition is a reality in various parts of the region. Most importantly, descendants of slaves and slave-owners have practically reconciled pressures for systemic progress with certain aspects of their cultural pasts; and the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s has morphed, rather curiously, into a new order for the new century.

My original statement of the Southern race game has changed substantially and significantly during recent decades. As a reminder, that traditional system was designed to provide whites with the blessings of democracy while oppressing, exploiting, and discriminating against their fellow human beings of African origins and heritage. The new order is a more conventional operation, without base objectives of racial oppression, socio-economic exploitation, or blatant discrimination. Clearly the game favors white majorities and their conservative priorities, but black minorities now participate and their concerns often take center stage.

Today's major controversies therefore are not matters of slavery, segregation, or anything near civil rights crises of the past. Of course, critical fights still occur over rancorous racial policies and racist practices; debate rages over issues related to racial history and class distinctions in this part of the country. Normally, blacks demand bold government initiatives and whites insist on less bold action as a result of these debates and fights. However, the new game revolves mainly around disputes about more routine decisions of policy and politics -- or "who gets what" -- with, expectedly, whites and blacks on different sides of partisan struggles.

Neo-Racial Culture

As Southern Democracy receded and Republicanism spread, a neo-racial culture of Southern politics -- absent universal, egregious, consuming racism but "still revolving," as V.O. Key, Jr., might say, "around the position of the Negro"--took root in the 1990s. This new racial outlook thrives as we begin the 21st century.

Apparently, participants in the Southern political system have come to accept the idea that (a) race and racism are real, critical, unavoidable legacies in the public arena, and that (b) moderated race-gaming is an appropriate way to do political business in contemporary regional democracy.

A perfect storm of changing contextual forces -- demographics, economics, black votes, partisan realignment, moderating attitudes, and constant legal pressures--has brought many Southern white and black politicians together in an incongruous arrangement on important issues and day-to-day workings of Southern politics.

Almost incredibly, this togetherness reflects their raw history and current relationship. They used to engage in brutal race wars in which white leaders oppressed, exploited, and discriminated against blacks; but now, even though they often divide and dispute racially, white and black politicians more often than not negotiate racial transactions for mutual benefit and/or progress. In fact, successful Southern politicians on both sides play this race game--even if they don't like the game or each other.

Straightforward Logic

The logic of this approach is straightforward in a society which has shed sinister racist ways yet where race constantly -- consciously and subconsciously -- colors public life. Many political clashes involve real partisan/ philosophical/ideological differences; and the outcome is more likely to reflect conservative priorities rather than the liberal agenda. However, practical Southern politicians, activists, voters, and journalists have adopted this neo-racial mindset to deal directly and functionally with the South's historical dilemma.

This mindset injects racial considerations into discussions about most general operations of Southern government, including taxing, budgeting, hiring, and oversight; and it intrudes especially into sensitive negotiations on such diverse matters as education, law enforcement, public employee pay raises, and even campaign reform. Inevitably, the new racial politics impacts -- sometimes constructively, sometimes shamefully, sometimes shamelessly -- the way we conduct political and public business in the contemporary South.

Moderated Race-Gaming by Blacks and Whites

Unlike in the Old South and Southern Democracy, however, these racialized transactions are conducted within the framework of "moderated race-gaming"; and contemporary white-black politicking usually produces workable outcomes and sometimes encourages progressive action.

This is neither the stark past nor an idealized future; it is a halfway house of racialized politics in which white politicians and black politicians attempt to secure for themselves and their constituents the blessings of democracy and the goodies of political life. Furthermore, as my continuing discussion will illustrate, both sides now exhibit an appreciation of a new racial culture and working relationship in pursuit of these blessings and goodies.

In essence, then, the new arrangement is a continuing game of racial politics -- now played by both whites and blacks in more sophisticated manner without traditional perversities -- in a regional system still struggling with historic black-white tensions. This new order represents a modernized, measured mixture of hard history, progressive practicality, and, most importantly, biracial accommodation.

In my next post, I'll talk about the substance, style, strategy, operations, and outcomes of biracial accommodation.

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.