The Whitening Of Southern Politics

by Dish Staff

Jazon Zengerle’s TNR cover-story examines the state of racial politics in the South:

Because of increasingly racially polarized voting patterns in the South, party has become a stand-in for race. As University of California at Irvine law professor Rick Hasen recently wrote in the Harvard Law Review, “The realignment of the parties in the South following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s has created a reality in which today most African American voters are Democrats and most white conservative voters are Republicans.” That means that, as Democrats have lost ground in statehouses in Alabama and elsewhere across the South, so have African Americans. According to research by David Bositis, in 1994, 99.5 percent of black state legislators in the South served in the majority. By 2010, the percentage had fallen to 50.5. Today, it’s a mere 4.8 percent.

Political scientists distinguish between descriptive representation and substantive representation. The former focuses on the number of, say, African Americans who are elected to a legislative body, while the latter focuses on the effect of those African American representatives on the legislation passed by that body. It was easy to see, by the early ’80s, that the Voting Rights Act had successfully achieved descriptive representation for African Americans in the Southern state legislatures. But, as time went on, it began to achieve substantive representation, as well. “There was a thirty-year period in the South, from about 1980 to 2010, where there really was biracial collaboration and cooperation in politics,” says Bositis. “And it was a genuine biracial politicsmore genuine than in some northern states.”

But nowadays, according to Zengerle, “the GOP-controlled governments of Southern states are behaving in ways that are at times as hostile to the interests of their African American citizens as Jim Crow Democrats were half a century ago”:

As David Bositis told me, “Black people in the South have less political power now than at any time since the start of the civil rights movement.”

Of course, that flies in the face of the newly popular notion that Southern blacks have never enjoyed more political clout. Whether it was black Mississippians helping Senator Thad Cochran win the Republican run-off in Mississippi in June or the potential for African American voters in North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana to carry Democratic Senate candidates in those states to victory this November, “black voters,” Nate Cohn recently wrote in The New York Times, “are poised to play a pivotal role in this year’s midterm elections.” But these will likely be pyrrhic victories. At the state level, Republicans can continue to win by catering exclusively to white voters, pushing the parties even further apart and making state laws ever more extreme. The fact that black people in the South still have the right to vote, and they’re still able to elect black politicians at the state and local levels, is what makes the end of the Second Reconstruction so much more insidious than the end of the First. Lacking white politicians to build coalitions with, those black politicians are rendered powerless. As Kareem Crayton, a University of North Carolina law professor, told me, “The situation today has the semblance of what representation looks like without very much ability to actually exercise it.”