During the long years of southern segregation, the white establishment managed to convince poor whites that it was blacks rather than itself that posed the biggest threat. This was not only immoral, it was a con, and a miserably effective one.
Only occasionally was the myth challenged, as when Earl Long went after black votes while holding onto his low income white constituency. When Long was elected in 1948 there were only 7,000 black voters in Louisiana. By the time he left office a decade later, there were 110,000.
It was not that Governor Long was any moral model. His language, for example, would have shocked today’s white and black liberals. What he did do, and quite well, was to put together people who many at the top didn’t want together. And at a time when the likes of Lyndon Johnson and William Fulbright were carefully avoiding the race issue, Long took on the White Citizens Council.
I was reminded of this the other day when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers. He was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt but what he was doing was simply reaching out to a constituency that Democratic liberals have too long dissed, the less successful white male. Uncle Earl would have been pleased.
By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, the likes of Gephardt and Kerry don’t think they qualify as Democratic voters.
In fact, the best way to change people’s minds about matters such as ethnic relations is to put them in situations that challenge their presumptions. Like joining a multicultural political coalition that works. It’s change produced by shared experience rather than moral by revelation.
Martin Luther King understood this as he admonished his aides to include in their dreams the hope that their present opponents would become their future friends. And he realized that rules of correct behavior were insufficient:
“Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”
This doesn’t happen logically, it doesn’t come all at once, and it doesn’t come with pretty words. Tom Lowe of the Jackson Progressive voted a couple of years ago in favor of a new Mississippi flag without the confederate symbolism. But in retrospect, he wrote later, he realized that the voters’ rejection of the change was a honest reflection of their state of mind: “Perhaps a time will come when we have truly put aside our nasty streak of racism. When that time arrives, maybe we will choose to replace the flag with something more representative of our ideals. On the other hand, when we reach that point, we may no longer care about the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag. Or perhaps we will keep it for another reason: to make those of us that are white humble by reminding us of our less than honorable past.”
Or perhaps do what the whites in the Southern Student Organizing Committee did at the beginning of the civil rights movement: seize the old symbol for a new purpose. The SSOC logo showed a black and white hand firmly clasped across a confederate flag. It is, within my extensive button collection, a favorite because it illustrates how symbols can be transformed and used for better purposes. Yes, the confederate flag is still there, but firmly in the background, reminding one of how hard won were the clasped hands in front.
The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by the growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare.
We’ll never know until we try. Dean, coming off some successful approaches to black voters, has now turned to another group the establishment, including its liberal branch, doesn’t really give much of damn about: the struggling white male. These two groups are primarily antagonistic because they have been taught to see life that way by those who really don’t want them getting along. Instead of inveighing in the best liberal fashion against all stereotypes save one’s own, Dean is mixing things up a bit. A Dean bumper sticker next to a confederate flag on a pickup may not be utopia, but it would be sure sign of positive change which, these days, would be a pretty big change in itself.