What Obama ’08 Will Tell Us About America

Last week, Senator Barack Obama visited Alabama where, according to The Birmingham News, his $25-per-head speech at the Sheraton in Birmingham was attended by a “large, diverse and enthusiastic crowd.” The candidate is reported to have left the state with an additional $100,000 for his campaign.

Perhaps news of a black candidate’s successful foray into the diverse heart of Dixie comes as no surprise to champions of the New South. A recent book by a pair of political scientists asserted that the “southern strategy,” which for decades exploited and exacerbated racial division to advance the Republican Party’s electoral prospects, is a remnant of the past.

And plenty of people contend that race relations are better in the

south than up north. Long before Mr. Obama emerged as a viable national

candidate, Alabama Speaker of the House Seth Hammett told me he believed “race relations are better in Alabama than in most


Even the criminal justice system seems to have come around. Since 1989, authorities in seven states have re-opened investigations into more than two dozen killings from the civil rights era. This time, the investigations have yielded results, including the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the notorious 1964 murders in Mississippi of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

But the New South is not the whole South. It is a mindscape contained within a larger, and in many ways still conflicted, region. And across that larger, culturally denser region, the ancient appetite for racial fear and contempt has not been sated.

In Alabama in 2000, roughly half of white voters declined to overturn the state’s anti-miscegenation statute. Two years later, a majority in Alabama voted to keep the state constitution’s antique (and illegal) guarantee of separate schools for separate races.

Alabama’s “Black Belt” is a rural swath of counties with high proportions of black residents, high rates of illiteracy and life expectancies equivalent to those in rural villages of Central America. In rural Bullock County, the number of white children enrolled in the county’s public schools has been known to hover in single digits. Most of the county’s white students avoid black-majority public classrooms –and ostracism by fellow whites — by attending the all-white or nearly-all-white “seg academies.”

Across South Georgia, the rebel battle flag is still plastered to pick-up trucks and hung defiantly over porches. Like elsewhere in the South, the flag reigns over Georgia not in spite of the pain it causes blacks but because of it. That’s the whole point, as former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes learned after he retired the flag from atop Georgia’s capitol and was himself retired by resentful white voters in his next election.

In Mississippi, the land where Martin Luther King found a “strange affinity for the bottom,” many whites still wade into the deep end of racial antagonism. After Mississippi Senator Trent Lott gave, in 2002, a warm endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign for president, he was stripped of his post as Senate Republican leader. (His penance was short; he was returned to the party’s Senate leadership, as whip, last fall.) Back in Mississippi, however, the

question was whether Mr. Lott’s subsequent apology for his embrace of

Thurmond’s racist campaign would undermine his standing among whites.


Three years later, after ample time for reflection, Mr. Lott showed his

colors again by joining his Mississippi colleague Thad Cochran in

declining to support a symbolic Senate resolution condemning the

nation’s history of lynching. Think for a moment about the statement

the Senators made with their vote and it’s hard to conclude that at

least some element of contemporary racial politics in Mississippi is anything but toxic.

Of course, a Democrat, regardless of race, wouldn’t be expected to win the South in any event. (If the Republicans’ southern strategy is truly dead — and I don’t believe for a second it is — it could only have died of engorgement.)

But the strong pulse of racism in the South does raise questions that apply exclusively to Mr. Obama. Chief among them is whether the

South’s racism is unique to Dixie, or whether the South simply boasts a more virulent strain of American, as opposed to Southern, racism that can be found in tens of millions of white voters throughout the country. Of all the questions about Barack Obama’s candidacy, this is most critical.

Mr. Obama’s mixed race is deemed an asset by millions of Americans eager to move beyond four centuries of bigotry and strife. What’s more, President Bush’s administration has probably done as much to advance Mr. Obama’s candidacy as even Jesse Jackson’s earlier, groundbreaking run. The United States has had a black Secretary of State for more than seven consecutive years. The effect of that politically, symbolically and psychically ­ has been to dull the nation’s racial funny bone.

The benefit to Mr. Obama is incalculable.

But the rarely uttered threat to Mr. Obama, and to ourselves, is that we are not as supple up north, and out west, as we hope. According to census data, the five most segregated cities in America are all above the Mason-Dixon line. One of the many anxious aspects of Mr. Obama’s historic moment is that we may soon have to discover why.

Francis Wilkinson, a former Democratic campaign consultant, is a writer in Nyack, New York. What Obama ’08 Will Tell Us About America