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Continuity and Change in the Southern Race Game

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I have argued, in several posts about the South's new race game, that black and white Southerners now co-exist in a "halfway house" of racialized politics. Now, how do I summarize the main points of contemporary regional life?

The Continuing Race Game in Southern Politics

The first and obvious reality of any discussion about Southern politics is the continuing, stubborn power of race and racism. The Southern race game endures. Politics inside the belly of the Southern beast still relates in troubling ways to matters of black and white.

I suspect, too, that the race game will continue as a distinguishing regional trademark for many years to come. As William Faulkner might say, the Southern racial beast lives on because neither white nor black Southerners will let it die.

A New Game of Biracial Accommodation

Perhaps the most important theoretical conclusion is that both races now play the game; and regional concerns have shifted from maintaining segregation to more conventional issues and practices.

The new version of Southern politics -- although still racked with racial problems -- is more open, candid, and accepted in great part because the two races have mutually accommodated progress, practicality, and cherished sensitivities of black and white culture in this region. Race is still pervasive, and, in some places at some times, race relations regress toward the olden ways. But there definitely is a new regime of "accommodation" between blacks and whites; the Southern race game is more biracial, positive, and functional -- in substance, style, strategy, operation, and outcomes -- than ever before.

Obviously, racism sometimes contaminates conservatism in regional politics. Generally speaking, though, these racial considerations are now secondary and supplementary to the overall political mixture of personalities, issues, interests, demographics, and regional networks; overt racial activities seem to be restricted to localized situations in predictable parts of the region.

The validity of this analysis obviously awaits the judgment of further scrutiny and history. As mentioned in an earlier discussion, current public officials are reluctant and perhaps unreliable witnesses to the new racial politics. However, I have asked two knowledgeable and candid observers -- one white and one black and both friends -- to assess my idea about evolving Southern politics. While their comments present nuanced perspectives about the substantive sufficiency of the contemporary order, each endorses the thesis of a new racial politics in the South.

Generational Change

Dr. Jess Brown, one of my former students and a political scientist who teaches at Athens State University, explains that, unlike some older folks, many young Southerners seem to have gotten beyond racial arguments and racial divisions of a bygone era. "It seems to be a generational phenomenon," he told me recently:

Blacks and whites under thirty have grown up and have been socialized in a different world than those over 60. I don't think the new generation pays much attention to the noisy crowd from the old days, particularly those leaders who earned their scars in the civil rights movement and see every situation as black and white and try to make every issue and outcome fit their racial experiences. The younger folks just want to make the system work for themselves and their local people. I've seen so many young black and white education and business professionals in our area sit down and deal realistically with the problems of their communities -- many of which relate to race -- without divisive race talk and turf wars.

Regional Progress

Dr. Artemesia Stanberry, assistant professor of political science at North Carolina Central University, is an Alabama native with extensive experience as a staff assistant for several Southern members of Congress. She began her Washington career in my office; and we have co-authored a book on Southern politics. Stanberry agrees with the depiction of a changed regional politics:

Obviously, something important and heretofore unnoted happened after the rabid racism of George Wallace and the righteous indignation of Dr. King; and that "something" is the biracial alliance depicted here. There is no doubt that this region has come a long way from open antagonisms of the past. What we see is significant movement toward a new arrangement where black politicians and groups engage alongside their white counterparts. Black minorities now participate and their concerns sometimes take center stage in contemporary public life. Overt race-gaming has been relegated, for the most part, to a more sophisticated politics that avoids the divisions of yesteryear and makes the Southern system functional.

However, she cautions against overstating regional progress:

Today's game still unduly favors white majorities and their conservative priorities; and there are far too many disparities in Southern life and society. The South clearly has made progress -- but there is a long way to go.

Thus, the new way of conducting regional political life is not much to brag about, but it works better than anything we have ever tried before. Southern politics will continue as a peculiar regional practice; but the raw, racial conflict and rhetoric of the past have softened considerably. Perhaps now is the time to talk about moving further along the road toward racial conciliation.

A Broader Challenge to the American Nation

In my opinion, the contemporary arrangement represents remarkable adjustment and a new world of biracial and party politics for the South. White and black Southerners now are experiencing logical normalization of partisan politics -- mainly along ideological lines but also reflecting social, and economic patterns -- similar to that of the rest of the country.

I also believe that some good faith people of this region might help America work its way through the shameful dilemma of national racial history. After all, the race game is not limited to the South. Perhaps there is something constructive, and more broadly useful, in this region's current and candid approach to matters of black and white relations. And that will be the subject of my next and last post.

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.