03/21/2014 09:47 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

Persistence of Race in the Changing South

Is race still the driver of Southern politics?

Is there any difference in the racial/partisan politics of the Peripheral South and the Deep South?

What has been the impact of changing Southern politics on Black representation over the past few decades?

These are fascinating questions -- and a leading scholar of contemporary politics supplied his answers in a recent conference of Southern specialists.

Dr. Seth C. McKee, a political science professor at Texas Tech University, says that race is still the driving force of Southern politics. He explained his thesis and its ramifications in a luncheon address earlier this month at the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, where a hundred academic specialists assembled for biennial presentations and discussions of regional developments.

McKee's generalization is not startling for those of us who have been working in this area for a long time. What is worthwhile about this proclamation is his comprehensive analysis of regional and subregional patterns since the mid-twentieth century. Beginning with V.O. Key's bible of Southern politics, Southern Politics in State and Nation, 1949), McKee weaved Dixiecrats, Goldwaterites, Wallacites, Stealth Reconstructionists, Boll Weevils, Reagan Democrats, Blue Dogs and Republican Revolutionaries into a logical transformation over the past seven decades.

Enduring Gospel of V.O. Key

Vladimer Orlando Key, Jr., presented his still-powerful thesis of Southern politics exactly 65 years ago:

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. (p. 5)

Key also was struck by the effectiveness of White leaders in sustaining their historic reliance on white supremacy:

This sketch of the broad outlines of the foundation of Southern politics points to an extraordinary achievement of a relatively small minority -- the whites of the areas of heavy Negro population -- which persuaded the entire South that it should fight to protect slave property. Later, with allies from conservatives generally, substantially the same group put down a radical movement welling up from the sections dominated by the poorer whites. And by the propagation of a doctrine about the status of the Negro, it impressed on the entire region a philosophy agreeable to its necessities and succeeded for many decades in maintaining a regional unity in national politics to defend those necessities. (p. 9)

Regional and Sub-Regional Evolution

Of course, the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 radically impacted Southern politics. Thereafter, in its simplest form, Southern politics boiled down to the racial population of various geographical areas and the division of Black and White voters between Democrats and Republicans in the South.

Dr. McKee correctly noted that Democratic politicians were able to maintain their hold on much of the South during the 1970s and 1980s, by crafting biracial coalitions. However, he also observed a split-level de-alignment of White voters reflecting sub-regional racial influence as indicated by V.O. Key's original analysis. McKee's charts showed that conservative White constituents in the Peripheral South (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia) began their trek to the GOP banner more rapidly than did White voters in the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina). McKee explained that the Deep South was slower to move to the GOP because the race issue was more important for this Southern subregion where the Democratic Party was so long an institution associated with white supremacy. Eventually, however, in the first two decades of the 21st century, Deep Southern Whites have forged a much stronger alliance with the Republican cause than have their Peripheral cousins.

Just as interestingly, in that process, Black southerners took an electoral and political beating in state legislatures of the Deep South. Whereas African Americans now comprise a majority of the minority Democratic delegations in that sub-region, all but a few of them serve in legislative minorities.

With such impressive Republican majorities, especially in the Deep South, the interests and demands of blacks can be almost wholly ignored without any political recourse... The 're-segregation' of southern politics may effectively mute the voice of Dixie's black citizens.

Dr. McKee concluded his address with the statement that "Race was, is, and still remains the drive wheel of Southern electoral politics":

More than any other factor, much more than economics, religion, crime, national defense, health care (insert other salient issues here) it is race that structures the partisan division of political competition and its influence looms significantly larger in the Deep South, which has always been the case... Perhaps it is nothing short of remarkable that 65 years after Key, race continues to play the lead role in Southern electoral politics. But the past has a long shelf life.


Dr. McKee's analysis was both scholarly and straightforward. He articulated precisely the simultaneity of change and continuity in this unique region of American democracy. To answer the three questions posed at the beginning of this post, he reported that: (1) Race is still an important aspect of Southern politics; (2) the Deep South has solidified its support for the Republican Party much more-so than the Peripheral South; and (3) while the civil rights movement has greatly improved the status and role of African Americans in the South, the entrenchment of the Democratic party as a minority force has had negative impact on the representational strength of Black citizens in the state legislatures of this region.

As a longtime political scientist and public official at the state and national levels, I might add some remarks -- drawn from my experience in academic research and practical politics -- to his analysis.

While race is still a powerful driver, the historic "race game" has changed in important ways from what Key observed midway of the past century. For example, the South now operates as a two-party system, and both races -- Blacks and Whites -- participate in Southern politics. That system reflects white majoritarianism; however, many successful, effective politicians of the two races strive to address the discriminatory legacies of slavery, segregation and discrimination. It's not much to brag about; and sometimes there is retrogression to raw racism. But the new politics is different from the past; actually, it is more akin to the practice of national politics than Old South ways. Readers who are interested in pursuing this strange new racial system can access my previous Huffington Post columns and my books on The South's New Racial Politics and Stealth Reconstruction.

AUTHOR NOTE: This column is the first of a series of posts deriving from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. The Symposium has been held every other year since 1978; a hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about 50 academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference this spring. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the discussion and offer some of my own comments.