Liberals will never tire of calling conservatives racist, because it’s always a show-stopper, a way of cutting off further debate on any issue where a liberal is likely to lose. So don’t expect it to go away any time soon. (Though why Republicans aren’t better at “punching back twice as hard,” e.g., by pointing out the permanent racist legacy of the Democratic Party, noting the vote tally for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, etc., is beyond me. Another example of Republican rhetorical incompetence.)
Gerard Alexander began a thorough debunking of this theme in the Claremont Review of Books several years ago (“The Myth of the Racist Republicans“), and Sean Trende continues the job with a fine column today on RealClearPolitics, “Southern Whites’ Shift to GOP Predates the ’60s.” It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s a few highlights:
In truth, the white South began breaking away from the Democrats in the 1920s, as population centers began to develop in what was being called the “New South” . . .
But the big breakthrough, to the extent that there was one, came in 1952. Dwight Eisenhower won 48 percent of the vote there, compared to Adlai Stevenson’s 52 percent. He carried most of the “peripheral South” — Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Florida — and made inroads in the “Deep South,” almost carrying South Carolina and losing North Carolina and Louisiana by single digits.
Even in what we might call the “Deepest South” — Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi — Eisenhower kept Stevenson under 70 percent, which might not seem like much until you realize that Tom Dewey got 18 percent in Georgia against FDR in 1944, and that this had been an improvement over Herbert Hoover’s 8 percent in 1932.
In 1956, Eisenhower became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a plurality of the vote in the South, 49.8 percent to 48.9 percent. He once again carried the peripheral South, but also took Louisiana with 53 percent of the vote. He won nearly 40 percent of the vote in Alabama. This is all the more jarring when you realize that the Brown v. Board decision was handed down in the interim, that the administration had appointed the chief justice who wrote the decision, and that the administration had opposed the school board.
Nor can we simply write this off to Eisenhower’s celebrity. The GOP was slowly improving its showings at the congressional level as well. It won a special election to a House seat in west Texas in 1950, and began winning urban congressional districts in Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia with regularity beginning in 1952.
It’s worth going back and re-reading Alexander’s dissection of the academic scholarship on this subject, and especially the conclusion:
The point of all this is not to deny that Richard Nixon may have invited some nasty fellows into his political bed. The point is that the GOP finally became the region’s dominant party in the least racist phase of the South’s entire history, and it got that way by attracting most of its votes from the region’s growing and confident communities—not its declining and fearful ones. The myth’s shrillest proponents are as reluctant to admit this as they are to concede that most Republicans genuinely believe that a color-blind society lies down the road of individual choice and dynamic change, not down the road of state regulation and unequal treatment before the law. The truly tenacious prejudices here are the mythmakers’.
P.S. While we’re on this subject, have a look at Kevin Williamson’s “Desegregation Before Brown” over at NRO, which helps correct that badly broken record about Barry Goldwater.