Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Southern Strategy

Haley Barbour is hardly outside the mainstream of the Republican Party.  He is the Governor of Mississippi.  Before that he had a long career as a lobbyist and political operative.  He worked on President Nixon's 1968 campaign in which the "Southern Strategy" was devised to exploit racism and appeal to Southern white voters who had long voted Democratic. Barbour later became chairman of the Republican National Committee.  He is a media favorite and considered a legitimate Republican candidate for president.

But there he was, in an interview with the Weekly Standard, extolling the pro-segregationist Citizens Council, which he claimed kept the KKK out of his hometown of Yazoo City and successfully integrated the public schools without violence.  Rick Perlstein writes that Barbour's recollections are "deeply confused, mostly wrong, and indicative above all of a cynical man who has made a lucrative career of exploiting racial trauma when it suited him, or throwing it down a memory hole when it did not; which is to say, an archetypal Dixie conservative."

Citizens Councils were founded in the mid-1950s in direct response to Brown v. Board of Education, with the goal of thwarting attempts at racial integration. In the Huffington Post, Derrick Johnson, Mississippi NAACP President, responded to Barbour's reminiscences:  "It's beyond disturbing -- it's offensive that he would try and create a new historical reality that undermines the physical, mental, and economic hardship that many African-Americans had to suffer as a result of the policies and practices of the White Citizens Council."  While it may have been true that the Citizens Councils often opposed the Klan, various scholars told the Huffington Post that this was not because the Councils favored racial integration but out of concern that the overt violence of such groups would hurt the local economy.  Citizens Councils used other methods to sustain segregation, particularly economic terror and harassment to intimidate blacks. 

Barbour appeared to remember little about the trauma, intimidation, violence and racism in his community.  He recalled that he "grew up in a town that was like a family."  As for the burgeoning civil rights conflict, "I just don't remember it as being that bad." A few months ago, Barbour gave another interview where he spoke glowingly about attending the University of Mississippi in the mid-1960s, when Old Miss was forced to integrate, describing it as "a very pleasant experience."  Thus, as Perlstein states, "At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town -- it really was no big deal, he insists."  He forgets "the entire bad-faith stew of race, sex, and corrupt plutocracy -- and its public repression in images of towns like 'families' and happy Negroes until outsiders stirred things up -- that defined his formative years."

But Barbour is not ignorant.  His forgetfulness and revisionism are part of a clear political calculation, one that attempts to downplay the racism with which he was steeped in the 1950s and 1960s.  Joan Walsh explains that "the story of his rise in national politics is the story of the rise of the South in the GOP.  Race, and the ugly reaction of many white Southerners to integration and civil rights, is at the heart of this story."  Barbour can't run from this story so he creates an alternate version in which he "and his generation of white Southerners built the modern Republican Party on a unifying, post-racial philosophy."   This is exemplified in his contention, made in an earlier interview, that it was the old Democrats who clung to segregation while the Republicans working for Nixon paved the way for civil rights in the south.   

As Digby points out, Barbour's offensive remarks on race (which also include his response to the controversy over the Virginia Governor's failure to mention slavery in honoring Confederate History Month as not amounting to "diddly") are a "dog whistle" to the Tea Partiers and other white conservatives who he needs to win a Republican primary.  This is a time-honored strategy of Republicans; one used expertly by Ronald Reagan when he launched his first presidential campaign by giving a speech on states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a city known for one thing -- the slaying of three civil rights workers by white supremacists in 1964.  As Bob Herbert once wrote about Reagan's speech, "he was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you."

Barbour is tapping into that same code 30 years later.  Perhaps the only difference is his lack of subtlety, as reflected in his quip back in 1982, when unsuccessfully running for the Senate, warning an aide that if the aide persisted in making racist remarks, "he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks."  Good Ole Haley probably doesn't remember that one.


lonbud said...

"He is a media favorite and considered a legitimate Republican candidate for president."

This is pretty much all we need to know regarding the future. Whether it portends good or ill is the tougher nut to crack.

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