To Write Off the South is to Surrender to Bigots
It is the day before Martin Luther King’s birthday, 2004, and I am reading with great sadness reports of a recent political analysis that says to Democratic candidates for president, "forget the South, white voters will not be coming back to you this year."
From my home base in Texas, I cannot disagree with the report. I have watched the new racism and the new Repulbicanism rise together in close collaboration for the past twenty years. I have seen it up close.
I was there in a small Texas town 20 years ago when a rising political star told a frail and elderly black woman to get herself a new husband. And I was in that room when the room burst into laughter. The paradigm of racist Republicanism was born that day, and it has been winning votes ever since.
For me, the culmination of the process was exemplified by December’s announcement that Texas A&M University would drop its 20-year-old commitment to affirmative action. The major players in the decision have solid credentials in the Republican establishment, including the corporate leader of Clear Channel who acts as chairman of the board of regents, the former director of the CIA who serves as president of the university, and a Republican Governor who quietly sits and watches this experiment in backlash, without saying anything at all.
Not to mention a president, whose influence over federal civil rights policy can be palpably felt by the absolute silence from the Office for Civil Rights. According to promises that George W. Bush himself made in writing as Governor of Texas, the OCR is supposed to be an active partner in the civil rights policies of Texas higher education, but OCR looks more like a silent partner these days.
All this is sad enough for the South that produced the great Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, but it is doubly sad during these days of national tribute to King.
There are white voters who have not gone over to Republican racism. For this reason, we do find some relatively progressive representatives. But progressive white voices have been deliberately targeted for removal by a redistricting battle that proved the Republican Governor could speak quite a lot when he wanted to.
Where white Democrats are supposed to find a future in this mess is a question as nasty as the recent political analysis indicates.
Yet, during this commemoration of King’s birthday, we can review what he said in his chapter about "Racism and the White Backlash" when he wrote his final book in 1967.
In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? King argued that, "we must turn to the white man’s problem." That problem, argued King, could be diagnosed in a contradictory personality that always takes something back for everything it gives.
The Texas A&M decision would be a classic illustration of this "strange indecisiveness and ambivalence". The university president promises to add new resources for marketing and recruitment. But since something has been given, something else must be taken away. Gone now is affirmative action in admissions.
Backlash in America, King reminds us, is the norm rather than the exception. The Civil Rights Movement was the exception in American history, so far as white America is concerned.
Not all white America, of course. But white America as a whole has a predictable pattern of behaving as if white America as a whole were the most important people in history.
King’s frankness about white racism is eloquent. "Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life…. Racism is total estrangement…. Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual or physical homicide upon the out-group."
Today, you can hear the pain of Texas leaders who stand bewildered before the Texas A&M decision. Leaders who were never consulted, advised, or warned about the surprising turn of policy, because why? Because they were not enough respected. And in the aftermath of their well-organized and collective complaint, we hear silence. The voices that THEY represent need not be heard.
In light of President Bush’s recent declarations that we must return to outer space with gusto, we may note what King wrote in 1967, that the nation’s enthusiasm for solving great problems was curiously selective. "No such fervor or exhilaration attends the war on poverty."
Or in light of the billions that have been budgeted for global war, we might again attend to King’s observations, "In the wasteland of war, the expenditure of resources knows no restraints; here our abundance is fully recognized and enthusiastically squandrered." And King was talking about war budget that amounted to a mere $10 billion per year.
As we drift in the direction of Republican racism, outer space enthusiasm, and big bucks for war, it would serve us well to consider what our great national philosopher counseled us in 1967. American progress has always been in the hands of dedicated minorities who resisted that drift.
"That creative minority of whites absolutely committed to civil rights can make it clear to the larger society that vacillation and procrastination on the question of racial justice can no longer be tolerated." What we can do is never give up.
GREG MOSES writes for the Texas Civil Rights Review, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org