07/14/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2012

The Strange New Southern Politics: Court-Approved Biracial Accommodation

In previous posts, I presented the South's new racial system as a "halfway house of racialized politics," or "biracial accommodation." The new black-white order is a curious concoction of relations reflecting a midway transition from the perverse Old South to the long-mythologized New South. And, strangely, public life in this halfway house has been embraced by politicians of both races and even the federal judiciary.

Perhaps the best way to convey and illustrate the South's sense of accommodated progress is to examine the formal court settlement decree -- in Knight v. Alabama (2006) -- addressing historical racial discrimination in Alabama's higher education system.

Case Study in Biracial Compromise

Alabama, like many Southern states, has settled with African American litigants through an extensive action plan; it is attempting to correct its discriminatory past by pursuing a variety of commitments to "prepare all its students for productive lives in the twenty-first century." The agreement -- signed by black plaintiffs and the public universities and accepted by the federal courts -- entails significant efforts to eliminate vestiges of de jure racism in funding, faculty, staff, student recruitment, and other programs through remedial endeavors.

While Knight v. Alabama (2006) targeted discriminatory vestiges at mainly white universities such as Alabama and Auburn, the outcome actually okayed a dualistic system of black and white higher education. Left legally intact was a network of traditionally black schools such as Alabama State University, which was created in 1867 as the state's minority teachers college.

In the final judgment, African American plaintiffs endorsed the state's good faith efforts; and the court effectively announced full compliance with the law:

By entering into this Agreement, the Plaintiffs acknowledge that the defendant University has satisfied this legal burden to warrant termination of this Decree with respect to defendant University. The parties agree that good faith efforts to enhance diversity should continue, and that continued progress does not depend on continued federal court supervision. The defendant University pledges to continue to make good faith efforts to further the progress that has been achieved over the course of this litigation in redressing historical discrimination in higher education against African-American citizens of this state, and reaffirms its good faith commitment to operate in a constitutional and non-discriminatory fashion.

Furthermore, neither side seemed interested in pressing the matter any further, agreeing that:

. . . there are no continuing policies or practices of defendant University, or remnants, traceable to de jure segregation, with present discriminatory effects which can be eliminated, altered or replaced with educational sound, feasible and practical alternative or remedial measures.

The important outcome, of course, is that Alabama higher education is now striving for openness and diversity; and much progress has been made in remedial funding for minority programs and black institutions.

But at the same time Alabama continues to accommodate, in effect, predominantly white colleges and predominantly black schools. In a state that is about three-fourths white and one-fourth black, the major public institutions are disproportionately one way or the other. Today, for example, the University of Alabama is about 80 percent white and Auburn University is about 90 percent white; Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University have similarly high percentages of black students--both in the 90 percent range--on their campuses. And there are few complaints.

The current situation seems to be a mutual compromise for achieving racial progress while accommodating traditional institutions, preferences and ways of the black and white communities. The parties involved have struck an anachronistic bargain incorporating "freedom of choice" into an education system previously separate and now trying to be fair and equal -- from a distinctly regional, historical and cultural perspective.

Some look at such developments and shake their heads. James Hood, who integrated the University of Alabama with Vivian Malone Jones in the 1960s, expressed disappointment upon returning to the campus for the fortieth anniversary of that event and seeing students of different races eating in different areas of a campus cafeteria:

I realized that segregation was still there, but now it was self-imposed -- and I wondered what the struggle was all about. Looking 50 years after Brown we have to ask, have we done all that we can do to further our objective, and have we made a demand that there be an inclusive agenda? And the answer to both is no.

But many -- including the federal judiciary, black leaders and several other Southern states -- consider such arrangements as acceptable progress, or at least realistic necessity, in this region. Courts have declared similar settlements in Louisiana (1994), Tennessee (2001), and Mississippi (2004).

Functional Accommodation of the Past and Present

Thus a new version of race relations seems to have taken hold in Southern political life.

Admittedly, not all Southern public officials practice the politics described in this series. Some -- particularly conservatives -- are disinclined toward "progressive" endeavors; others -- whether by principle or personality -- simply refuse to play the new game of racial politics. And in some areas, it's not necessary or possible to practice such biracial accommodation.

However, I suspect that most contemporary Southern politicians similarly pursue conventional objectives and racial progress, in measured, practical manner, while striving to preserve certain valued aspects of their past and present. To them, this is a functional adjustment of the Southern way of life, without perverse contortions of the past.

Transitional or Transformational?

This is indeed a strange new Southern politics. Call it what you may -- clearly unflattering terms like "separate but equal" and "racial feudalism" readily come to mind. But the South now practices a new political order reflecting its history of bilateral cultures, collateral institutions and practical progress.

Cynics can snicker; but the changed order is better than anything practiced in the past in this part of the country. And maybe the changing order is more than a transition from the past; let's hope it is transformational to a better future for the South and America.

In my final two posts in this series about the South's new race game, I'll talk about the prospects for regional progress and a broader challenge for our nation.

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.