BLAMING THE SOUTH
Today’s Democrats try to shift the blame from themselves by blaming “the South.” The South is supposedly responsible for espousing racist views and implementing racist practices. Yet the detractors of the South neglect to point out that after Reconstruction, The Democratic Party was the dominant, almost the sole, political party in the South.
One prominent Democrat, South Carolina governor (and later Senator) Bill Tillman, explained how this came about. “Republicanism means Negro equality, while the Democratic Party means that the white man is superior. That’s why we Southerners are all Democrats.” 4
How did the South become so uniformly Democratic? Basically the Democrats used racist ideas and practices to establish a lasting political hegemony there. So racism wasn’t incidental; it was an essential part of the Democratic Party’s strategy. The Democrats won the South by appealing not just to the former planter class but also to poor whites.
How did they do this? The great post-bellum invention of the Democratic Party was the institution of white supremacy. After the war, writes historian George Frederickson, “The one thing that held the Democratic Party together was a commitment to maintaining white supremacy.” 5 White supremacy is an elaborate ideological structure for justifying racism, in the same way that the “positive good” school was an elaborate ideological justification for slavery.
Now I am obviously not suggesting that the Democratcs invented racism, any more than I am suggesting that they invented slavery. Obviously slavery existed for a long time before the Democrats made their “positive good” arguments in favor of it. Similarly racism existed long before the Democrats developed the comprehensive ideology of white supremacy.
The purpose of an ideology is to reinforce a practice by defending and systematizing it. The “positive good” defense strengthened slavery by giving it an ideological foundation, and white supremacy did the same for racism. In fact, the supremacist ideology did more for racism than the “positive good” ideology did for slavery. “Positive good” arguments, after all, didn’t create the plantation system. That system already existed, and the “positive good” school was simply a southern Democratic rationalization for it.
By contrast, white supremacy created a whole new set of laws and practices that became the institutional embodiment of racism: Black Codes, Jim Crow, segregation, and a network of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Together these institutions created what historians bluntly refer to as the “re-enslavement” of blacks.
The term “enslavement” is an important one that will recur in this book. As I said in the last chapter, enslavement isn’t slavery – it is a transmission belt for moving people in the direction of slavery. Enslaved people are not property but they are in captivity.
By historical analogy, serfs were not slaves because they weren’t literally owned by their masters. On the other hand serfs were so captive to their masters in every aspect of their lives that we can fairly describe serfdom as a kind of enslavement. Having previously specialized in slavery, the Democratic Party soon specialized in enslavement – a strategy the party employs to the present day.
The institutions of black enslavement and white supremacy did not exist before Democrats in the South created them. The very same institutions then became mechanisms that Democrats used to build their power, and also to repel and defeat attempts by Republicans to extend rights and opportunities to black Americans.