Reckoning with Racism.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has ordered the removal of the portraits of four previous Speakers on the grounds that they had supported the Confederacy, either before or after serving in the office she now holds.  “There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy.”[1]  This may seem to some to be more like virtue-signaling than substantive change, but it’s a first step.  The United States does need to consider the place of racism in its past and present.  One question is how much truth-telling people want or can stand.

In almost every presidential election from 1852 to 1860 and from 1880 to 1976, the states of the Confederacy and then the former Confederacy voted Democratic.  What is true of presidential elections is even more true of Congressional, state, and local elections.[2]  For most of this period, the Democratic Party was a Southern-dominated party.  Only under unusual circumstances did the Democratic party manage to break out of its geographic and cultural isolation to win large numbers of states in other regions.[3]

The point is that for a hundred years the Democratic Party anchored its electoral base in the old Confederacy.  At times and in terms of political representation, it existed almost entirely as a regional party.  After 1876, the federal government conceded virtual “”Home Rule” to the South.  Southern Democrats imposed “Jim Crow” laws,[4] disfranchised African-Americans,[5] created and celebrated the mythology of the “Lost Cause,”[6] put up statues to “Johnny Reb” and to Confederate generals, and lynched with abandon.[7]  Prominent Southern Democrats included Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who had proudly led a bloody attack on freedmen before representing South Carolina in the Senate.[8]  At the Versailles peace conference, Woodrow Wilson vetoed a Japanese proposal for a “racial equality” statement in the Treaty.  During the Great Depression, much of the New Deal’s aid to Southerners either tacitly or explicitly excluded African-Americans.  Later, the men who murdered Emmett Till and the jury that acquitted them were Democrats.  These examples barely scratch the surface.

In short, and to put it mildly, the Democratic party long resisted racial equality.  Indeed, until within human memory, it formed one of chief institutional exponents of race hatred in the United States.  How to address this issue?

[1] Emily Cochrane, “Pelosi Removes Portraits Tied to Confederacy From Capitol,” NYT, 19 June 2020.

[2] For presidential elections, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_South#Solid_South_in_presidential_elections For gubernatorial elections, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_South#South_in_gubernatorial_elections

[3] Notably in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgency split the Republican party, and between 1932 and 1948 when the Great Depression and the Second World War created a national emergency.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Crow_laws

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disenfranchisement_after_the_Reconstruction_Era

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Cause_of_the_Confederacy

[7] See, if you’ve got a strong stomach: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States

[8] Maybe Speaker Pelosi could try to repeal the Tillman Act (1907).

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