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August 11, 2014 1:34 PM “Democrat” and “Republican” As Racial Code Words in the Deep South

By Ed Kilgore

The political polarization of the Deep South on racial and partisan lines that Jason Zengerle discusses in his TNR piece provocatively subtited, “This is how the civil rights movement ends,” is nothing new to anyone who’s been paying attention. But by focusing on Alabama, where the final, definitive stage of that trend occurred suddenly just four years ago, Zengerle usefully illuminates how the raw exercise of power by southern Republicans is creating a governing environment where African-Americans are as locked out of any political influence as thoroughly as they were in the Jim Crow era.

The transformation of Alabama politics was nearly instantaneous. Prior to the 2010 election, the Alabama House had 60 Democratic members, 34 of them white and 26 black. Afterward, there were 36 Democrats—ten white, 26 black. Meanwhile, in the Alabama Senate, the number of black Democrats remained seven, while the number of white Democrats fell from 13 to four. The casualties included [state senate president pro tem Lowell] Barron, who lost to a first-time Republican candidate.
[Mike] Hubbard assumed his role as speaker of the House, and [Del] Marsh was elected Senate president pro tem. Having wrested control of the statehouse, now they could begin to change the state.

Hubbard and Marsh had spearheaded a takeover drive that attracted lots of out-of-state money—some of it of questionable legality. In power, their first step was to entrench it via redistricting, and their second step was to lock Democrats—which increasingly meant African-Americans—out of any say over what was happening in Montgomery.

You can and should read the whole piece, but one implication that should be underlined is especially relevant in terms of the recent intra-GOP struggle in Mississippi, which preceded Alabama in the same sort of racial/partisan realignment. As Zengerle notes: “Because of increasingly racially polarized voting patterns in the South, party has become a stand-in for race.” That means African-Americans have lost the leverage they used to have as an important element in a Democratic coalition that was generally competitive at the state level, if not frequently in power. But it also means “Republican” and “Democrat” have become racial code-words. So people like those supporting Chris McDaniel’s challenge to Thad Cochran in Mississippi can talk about “Democrats” spoiling the purity of a Republican primary, and everyone knows exactly what they are talking about. So the realignment has not only given white conservatives the kind of complete power they began to lose (temporarily, it seems) during the Civil Rights era; it also gives racists a new way to keep their petticoats—or symbolically, their white sheets—all clean and starchy.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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