How Conservative Elites Stoke Racist Anxieties to Gain Power and Split Blacks and Whites
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History runs deep here: white American colonists also used a fear of being reduced to the status of slaves by the British to rally their cause of “freedom.” This was not an empty allusion. It was potent and direct, as men like Jefferson and Washington knew a great deal about slavery -- they personally owned hundreds of black people.
A Neo-Secessionist Ideology
In a perverse twist of history following the civil rights movement, Republican elected officials won over the former Confederacy. As a result, the solid South is now the beating heart of Red State America. Consequently, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has increasingly embraced a neo-secessionist ideology in which the long-standing political consensus brought about by the Civil War is now called into question. In the 2012 campaign, this yearning for the good old days of Jim Crow and the Confederacy is in full bloom.
For example, Republican candidates have argued that basic constitutional protections can be decided on the local level in order to subvert federal authority. Some have even gone so far as to claim that individual states have the “right” to break away from the United States of America. The conversion is so complete, that a significant percentage of Republican voters now believe the Confederacy was right to secede, and that their traitorous state governments were on the correct side of history.
This embrace of the Confederacy and states’ rights is part of a broader strategy to destroy the social safety net, and as a negative response to how over the last five decades American democracy has become more inclusive. A fear of white oppression is also central to this story.
The Confederacy was first and foremost a white supremacist military state. It ruled through violence, terror, and the threat of harm to black people (and whites who dared to dissent). Consequently, one of its greatest fears was that blacks would gain their freedom and seek vengeance on white people.
Leading Confederates such as Henry Benning explicitly warned about the possibility of white enslavement at the hands of blacks. South Carolina’s articles of secession referenced a fear that white people cannot be part of a country in which blacks are the social equals of whites, and that no such equal arrangement could be tolerated under any circumstances.
During Jim and Jane Crow, supporters of segregation and American apartheid also channeled white anxieties about being dominated by black people. Racially and socially conservative whites were fearful that blacks who came of age after the end of slavery would have a sense that they were full American citizens. In turn, this generation of African Americans would be “uppity” and not know their proper "place" in the social order.
Under Jim and Jane Crow, freedom and liberty for whites was viewed as a zero sum game wherein any extension of full rights to blacks meant a restriction on white peoples’ behavior. For the imagination of apartheid America, one which through both law and day-to-day practice maintained separate and unequal spheres of cultural, political, social, and economic life along the color line, black freedom necessarily meant white “oppression.”
With its embrace of the Confederacy and secessionist rhetoric, the Republican Party now owns this history. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan solidified this relationship when he chose to give his infamous racially coded speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi in support of states’ rights—the very location where three civil rights workers were killed by white thugs 16 years earlier.
When Republican candidates proudly stand under the Confederate flag they legitimize white supremacy and Jim Crow, with all of its violence and paranoia. As they muse about how the landmark Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s were threats to white peoples’ liberty, or suggest that the federal government under Barack Obama is coming to take away their freedoms, conservatives draw on a deep legacy of white victimology that has an eerie resonance with that of Jim Crow America.