04/08/2012 11:18 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2012

Can 'Southern Democracy' Survive the Legacies of Race and Racism?

Without doubt, the most challenging problem confronting Southern Democracy in these troubled times is its conjoined historical nemeses -- race and racism.

Unfortunately, contemporary legacies of the past persist throughout the region. Whether viewed as continuing discrimination or just stubborn residue from the days of slavery and segregation, race relations in today's Southern politics present an important and difficult question for Southern Democrats.

Specifically, how can the Democratic Party win and govern in racially-divided, white-majority areas of the South? Such concerns did not bother segregationist politicians in earlier times; but today's environment jeopardizes the future of the party that was the ruling regime in this region for much of its history.

The South's historic "race game"

The historic "race game" allowed Southern whites -- operating for much of the time as a Solid South under the banner of the Democratic Party -- to enjoy the blessings of American democracy while exploiting and discriminating against black Southerners.

Most white Southerners today disavow the race game; furthermore, the legal framework of segregation and discrimination no longer exists. However, the game continues because of de facto realities -- demographic patterns, cultural differences, economic disparities, and simply bad racial feelings.

Also, expectedly, sometimes Southern leaders and citizens -- Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks -- resort to the old ways; and strident activists seem determined to continue unsavory aspects of the race game. As William Faulkner might say, the Southern racial beast lives on because some partisans of both races will not let it die.

Race and partisanship in today's South

Nowadays, a different, modified version of the game prevails, with blacks and whites engaging in a strange relationship within a new party system.

Certainly, the South's white majority now inclines toward the Republicans and its black minority aligns almost totally with the Democrats. But the contemporary racial order defies simple explanation and complicates Democratic recovery.

Most importantly, both races now participate in the game. And, while it is true that race and racism significantly triggered realignment after the civil rights movement, racial issues have become less powerful. Today's South may indeed have further isolated itself in national elections -- but this is partisan, ideological, philosophical, and cultural regionalization as much as or more so than racism or white opposition to a black president.

The essential developments over the recent past to note are (1) that the race game has gone biracial; and (2) the political struggle here has shifted toward other considerations -- factors that sometimes mirror the historical racial system but just as often reflect contemporary social interests, religious alliances, and economic differences between black and white societies.

A new politics of "biracial accommodation"

Despite the historical background, Southern politicians of both races have developed, among themselves, a striking evolution of the race game. The academic community and professional media have yet to focus on this aspect of racial politics; but most successful, effective leaders -- black and white -- pursue positive change, respecting the norms and traditions of the divided cultures, negotiating contentious problems on an ad hoc basis, sometimes openly and sometimes privately, in a way that allows personal political flexibility.

A half-century after the civil rights movement, black and white politicians seemingly have come to terms--terms that would amaze outsiders -- about living together in a halfway house of racialized politics. At first, during the last few decades of the past century, their working relationship was one of quiet, practical, biracial machinations; and in the 21st century, a new, open, sophisticated system of "biracial accommodation" has taken hold as the region develops a functional politics despite its hard racial history.

Additionally, many ordinary, everyday Southern citizens -- white and black -- have gotten beyond racial arguments and racial divisions of a bygone era. Younger Southerners in particular have grown up in a South that is different from the world of older generations who inflicted pain and suffered scars during the civil rights movement; and newer in-migrants come from areas never wreaked with such havoc. Many parents in Southern communities, for example, sit down and work together on serious problems, like schools and economic development, without engaging in the divisive race game.

Dealing with these racial legacies

The problem for Southern Democrats is that they cannot escape the fact that African Americans constitute their party's liberal base and conservative whites comprise a majority in the Republican Party. Democratic candidates have to figure out how to mobilize the black base and attract sufficient support from middling white moderates and independents; Democratic officials then have to cypher these same dynamics for the broader public in a region wrought by historic tensions and contemporary residues.

There are no easy, immediate, perfect solutions for success in such an environment. Of course, most readers have probably already arrived at their own recommendations, reflecting personal inclinations of practicality and ideology. And I suspect that most successful, effective Southern Democratic politicians -- black and white -- will pursue, for the short-term, biracial accommodation and pragmatic progress in public life. Perhaps, too, as I suggest in a later post, positive leadership and a moderating electorate may revitalize the Southern Democratic Party over the long haul.

Whatever the course, we all should realize serious and uncertain ramifications for evolving Southern Democracy.

Author's Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about the future of the Democratic Party in the South.