Why America Is Still Not a Post-Racial Society

Posted August 3, 2009 at 2:51pm

Despite the way that Barack Obama’s election prompted observers to repeat the phrase “post-racial America,— America’s issues with race are far from settled. If anything, the significance placed on the fact of an African-American’s claiming the highest office in the land reflects the tenacity of race in a country whose treatment of minorities has often seemed at odds with its governing principles of equality and justice.

In “The South’s New Racial Politics: Inside the Race Game of Southern History,— former Rep. Glen Browder (D-Ala.) argues that this legacy is nowhere more relevant than in the South. Although what he terms “the race game— has evolved greatly since the era when Jim Crow reigned supreme, Browder writes that race continues to be “the most useful, single factor of both analysis and power in the South.—

“We understand that race and racism are part of our history and our current legacy, and frankly it is a legitimate factor— in Southern politics, Browder said in an interview.

The book is the first in what will be a three-part series on Southern politics. Browder writes from the vantage point of someone who has led, as he writes, a “conjoined career— of both practicing and studying politics. He was a professor of political science at Jacksonville State University, after which he became an Alabama state Representative and, eventually, the Congressman for Alabama’s 3rd district.

Much of the “real politics— of racial accommodation is obscured from public view and not fully covered by the media, Browder said. In this sense, he claims an insider’s perspective on the types of compromises that happen behind closed doors in Southern statehouses.

Browder traces the history of racial politics from the time preceding the civil rights era when one-party white supremacy was a foregone conclusion. He invokes some of the more shameful moments of racist governance, such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace declaiming about “segregation forever.—

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Southern politicians were forced to abandon outright discrimination. Still, racial politics continued to be highly polarizing, and a candidate risked alienating his white base if he appealed too explicitly to black voters (and vice versa). Disingenuous practices cut both ways, with white candidates manipulating black voters “for the benefit of the white power structure— and black candidates paying off community figures such as preachers for informal support.

But slowly, things began to change. Black voters became a reliable reservoir of support for the Democratic Party and white conservatives flocked to the Republican Party, dislodging one-party rule. Cross-racial coalition politics became common practice as Democrats increasingly sought to counter Republican power by reaching out to black voters, and election campaigns began to incorporate both white and black activists.

Although Browder writes that the late 1970s to 1990s was an era of tremendous progress, he emphasized that biracial politics remained a discrete affair and labeled the era one of “stealth politics.— Politicians had to respond to the concerns of black constituents without antagonizing white voters, something that Browder said came into play in his own election campaigns.

“I tried to maximize my black vote without unduly upsetting my white constituents,— he said. “You never talked publicly about those things.—

This type of accommodation, while sometimes manifesting itself in increased attention to legislative issues associated with civil rights such as housing and education, also often involved trade-offs that expanded the role of African-Americans in public life. For example, Browder cites the former field director for the Alabama Democratic Conference who described the way his organization supported candidates who promised to back the appointment of black federal judges.

“It’s not pretty civics,— he said. “It’s the legacy of our hard history.—

Browder said this type of deliberately clandestine politics for the most part no longer holds legitimacy in campaigning, in part because of increased scrutiny from constituents and the media.

“Any politician who tries to play the race card — either as a sellout to the other race or pandering to your race — is going to get burned,— he said.

But this does not mean that race is not still an integral part of how politics are conducted in the South. Browder noted a recent, particularly acrimonious race for the mayor of Birmingham, which he characterized as “a terribly racial campaign about which politician was blacker than the other one.— Included in any campaign’s calculus, he said, is an assessment of what respective percentages of the white and black vote they must win in a given district, and the message is calibrated accordingly.

“Policy-making where the two races share power resembles a dual system of governance in which dominant leaders and factions of blacks and whites compete and then consensually check-off on any final program of consequence,— Browder writes.

In perhaps the most telling example of the racial status quo, Browder describes a 2006 court decision aimed at reducing vestiges of racism in funding, faculty and staff at Alabama’s public universities. But Alabama’s public universities remain mainly homogeneous in terms of student bodies: Auburn University is 90 percent white, while Alabama State University is 90 percent black. Browder quotes some civil rights advocates who are dismayed at this outcome, but he notes that many black leaders “consider such arrangements as acceptable progress, or at least realistic necessity, in this region.—

It is difficult to render final judgment on the “race game.— On the one hand, its durability signals that racial divisions are very much alive in the South today. On the other hand, it has yielded tangible results, both in an abundance of black public figures and in more widespread sensitivity to issues of particular concern to the black community. Like the broader arc of American history, it is an equivocal legacy.

“This may not be what Martin Luther King envisioned,— Browder said. “But it’s not what George Wallace envisioned, either.—