Monday, October 16, 2017

The Southern Diaspora and the Southernization of America

The Republican Party has long been associated with fiscal conservatism.  It still is—or at least it was until Trump arrived.  But it was also generally liberal on social issues with its moral core derived from traditional New England Protestantism.  At some point the Party became associated with a particularly radical social conservatism as its center of gravity moved to the states of the South that promoted the values of Evangelical Christianity.  Donald Trump surprised everyone by gaining the Republican nomination for president, and startled everyone by actually winning the election.  Commentators were so busy drawing comparisons with the rise of Adolph Hitler that they forgot to notice that the politician Trump most resembled was the southern segregationist governor, George Wallace, who ran for president in 1964 and 1972 as a Democrat and in 1968 representing the American Independent Party.  Trump did not run as a segregationist, but he gave a wink and a nod to every racist he encountered.  Wikipedia provides these comments on Wallace’s 1968 campaign.

“Wallace ran a campaign supporting law and order and states' rights on racial segregation. This strongly appealed to rural white Southerners and blue-collar union workers in the North. Wallace was leading the three-way race in the Old Confederacy with 45% of the vote in mid-September. Wallace's appeal to blue-collar workers and union members (who usually voted Democratic) hurt Hubert Humphrey in Northern states like Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A mid-September AFL-CIO internal poll showed that one in three union members supported Wallace, and a Chicago Sun-Times poll showed that Wallace had a plurality of 44% of white steelworkers in Chicago.”

“Wallace's foreign policy positions set him apart from the other candidates in the field. If the Vietnam War was not winnable within 90 days of his taking office, Wallace pledged an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. . . . Wallace also called foreign-aid money 'poured down a rat hole' and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their defense.”

Wallace appealed to the racial and economic fears of the white working class.  The surprising strength of his campaign should have told us that Trump would also be stronger than expected outside of the South.

Historians, social scientists, and political analysts have often been moved to use a phrase similar to the “southernization of America” to describe the process by which the Republican Party was reconfigured to take its current form and the white working class switched from seeking the economic benefits promised by Democrats to pursuing the cultural values promoted by Republicans.  Could it be that southern values propagated out of the South with the huge migrations of southerners that dispersed throughout the rest of the nation during most of the twentieth century?  James N. Gregory is a history professor at the University of Washington who believes that to be the case.  He presents his data and conclusions in The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (2005).

The migration of Blacks from the South to the cities of the North and West has been referred to as “The Great Migration.”  The migration of whites from the South over the same period was much larger, but much less studied.  Gregory provides this summary of what his investigations demonstrated.

“This book is about what may be the most momentous internal population movement of the twentieth century, the relocation of black and white Americans from the farms and towns of the South to the cities and suburbs of the North and West.  In the decades before the South became the Sun Belt, 20 million southerners left the region.  In doing so, they changed America.  They transformed American religion, spreading Baptist and Pentecostal churches and reinvigorating evangelical Protestantism, both black and white versions.  They transformed American popular culture, especially music.  The development of blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hillbilly and country music all depended on the southern migrants.  The Southern Diaspora transformed American racial hierarchies, as black migrants in the great cities of the North and West developed institutions and political practices that enabled the modern civil rights movement.  The Southern Diaspora also helped reshape American conservatism, contributing to new forms of white working-class and suburban politics.  Indeed, most of the great political realignments of the second half of the twentieth century had something to do with the population movements out of the South.”

Given the interest in Donald Trump and the Republican voters, the focus here will be on the effects of the southern white migrants.

Discussing internal migrations and the effects they might have becomes complicated because people will leave one location in search of a better life but a significant number will return eventually, sometimes within months, sometimes only decades later.  Data exist providing numbers of southerners who migrated out over some time period, and data exist indicating where those migrants settled over that period.  However the data needs interpretation from other sources in order to determine what effect they might have had on any society in which they embedded themselves.  Economic and social circumstances would also play a role in where people settled.  Blacks were restricted in where they could go and headed for the black enclaves in the big northern and western cities.  Whites could go anywhere other whites lived, but were not equally welcome in all places.  As a result, whites would also tend to concentrate in areas where jobs were available and any cultural peculiarities they might have brought with them were tolerated. 

The migration flow breaks down into two periods.  The first begins at the start of the twentieth century, grows through the war years and diminishes during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The second and largest migration period was driven by World War II and the postwar boom years.  The out migration of blacks would peak in the 1970s and fall considerably as the century came to an end.  For whites, the peak would come in the 1950s and stay relatively high from then on.

“In the Great Migration era of the early twentieth century, when African Americans moved north for the first time in large numbers and established much-noticed communities in the major cities, less-noticed white southerners actually outnumbered them roughly two to one.  The margins became larger after 1950 and still larger as the century drew to a close.  Over the course of the twentieth century, more than 28 million southerners left their home region—28 percent were African Americans, 68 percent were non-Hispanic whites, and 4 percent southern-born Latinos, Tejanos mostly, who had been joining the flow north and west since World War II.”

Gregory provides a breakdown of where former southerners lived in 1970 by region.  By far, the most densely settled regions are what he refers to as the Pacific (California, Oregon and Washington) and the East North Central (Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio).

“In 1970, 12 percent of California residents were southern born.  This was proportionally similar to Ohio, where 1.4 million southerners of both races lived, and to Indiana, which was home to 617,000.  In Illinois, where former southerners numbered close to a million, and Michigan, where there were more than 800,000, they constitutes 9 percent of the population….Unfortunately, we have no way of counting the children and grandchildren born in these states.  They would certainly at least double the demographic impact.”

 One must remember that statewide numbers can be misleading because conditions encouraged concentration of migrants.  Consider California as an example.  It saw a huge influx of migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas during the depression years.  Many of them settled in the Central Valley where agricultural jobs were available and became a significant fraction of the population.  California is today, politically, two states: the coast and the inland region.  It is perhaps the most liberal state in the union because most of the voters live on the coast where the original settlers had mostly non-southern origins.  The inland parts of the state are highly conservative, differing little today in political views from those now found in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas.

Gregory was quoted as writing that the migrant southerners “helped reshape American conservatism, contributing to new forms of white working-class and suburban politics.”  How does he justify that claim?

One of the southern contributions to political discourse was to make racism and racial violence more politically correct.  Racism already existed outside the South, but it was generally illegal and violence was not condoned.  The southerners brought the attitude that racism was legal and violence against blacks was condoned.  This message was one of encouragement of others to behave as whites did in the south.  Although the southerners were not numerous enough to be major participants in racial incidents, they could be the tinder that lights the flame.  Gregory provides this example.

“Southern whites played a real part in the hate strikes and white-against-black housing riots that occurred in northern and western cities in the 1940s and 1950s.  Sociologist Katherine Archibald worked in a shipyard in Oakland, California, during World War II.  She witnessed neither riots nor major violent clashes, but in her book Wartime Shipyard,  she explored the tense racial dynamics of the yard, where about 20 percent of the workers were African Americans from the western South and another 20 percent were whites from the same region….Okies often took the lead in whites-only conversations about the ‘Negro problem.’  Vicious, uncompromising racism, she pointed out, was widespread, virtually universal among whites of all backgrounds in the shipyard, but the southerners spoke loudly about their hatreds and theories, drawing a sense of authority from their supposed special knowledge about how to handle black people.  Talk of lynching was an Okie contribution to the racist discourse: ‘What you need round here.’ one former southerner counseled, ‘is a good old fashioned lynching.  Back in my home state we string a nigger up or shoot him down, every now and then, and that way we keep the rest of them quiet and respectful’.”

Why is the encouragement of racism of significance in the history of American conservatism?  Because every Republican president from Nixon to Trump has sent the message that racists are welcome in the Republican Party, the conservative party.  This embrace of racism led southern Democrats to turn into southern Republicans and helped working and middle class whites outside the South decide to vote the same way, although there would be more than racism involved.  Under Trump, the Republican Party is best described as a white nationalist party.

Gregory provides several examples where the migrant southerners did more than just talk.  The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was driven mostly by southern activism.  The participants were majority non-southerners, but southerners led the way.

“Estimates of the numbers who joined [the Klan]….range well above 2 million, with two-thirds of the membership outside the South.  Huge Klan organizations were built in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan.  The West also responded to the Invisible Empire.  Oregon elected a Klansman governor in 1922, as did Colorado in 1924, and there were pockets of Klan strength in California and Washington.”

A Texas native, D.C. Stephenson was perhaps the most politically successful of the Klansmen.

“….Indiana alone counted 300,000 Klansmen….the 1924 election season witnessed Stephenson’s greatest triumph: first a Klan takeover of the Republican Party, then of the Indiana statehouse.  Until he was brought down by a 1925 rape and suicide scandal, Stephenson was the most visible and probably the most powerful Klansman in the country.”

A similar dynamic occurred when George Wallace brought his campaign to the North in the 1960s.  He received considerable support from southern migrants, but probably more importantly, their support provided the cover for others who might have hesitated to vote for such a controversial and unlikely figure.  By the time Wallace arrived on the national scene a number of other developments had occurred. The civil rights movement and subsequent legislation had further aroused racial issues.  School desegregation would be a long and nasty process—unpopular in both the North and South.  The war in Vietnam would grow to monstrous proportions, dividing the nation as to how to define patriotism.  The cultural upheavals of the 1960s had offended the traditionally minded and prompted religious groups to become more politically active.

Wallace brought more to the table than just racism.  Like Trump he appeared to be the answer to a number of the concerns of the white lower and middle classes.

“His promises crossed the boundaries conventional in northern politics.  He sounded like a Republican on welfare, race, and taxes, a Democrat on social security and union rights, and a southerner on the centrality of God-fearing religion.”

Much of the cultural division that emerged during the 1960s was driven by southern music.  Traditional southern music formed the basis for both an industry of folk music and one of country music.  The two would take opposite sides on virtually all issues.

The South also spawned liberals who would take their music north and create an industry that would side with liberals on issues related to race and unionization, and promote anti-war stances during the 1960s.  Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma and gained notoriety in California.  He would be the prototype.  The traditional southern melodies would be used to create protest songs that were used as a resource in the labor and civil rights movements, and ultimately in the antiwar movement.

Country music took a different path.  It had been increasing in popularity outside the South for some time, acquiring a country-western flavor when cowboy themes were added.  However, the arrival of rock and roll music in the 1950s produced an existential crisis.  To continue to grow, country had to redefine itself.  It had to shed the hillbilly and cowboy imagery and find an audience on which to focus.  If the youth wanted rock and roll and exciting experimentation, country would go for an older audience and emphasize traditional values.

“The racial markings remained very apparent as Nashville positioned itself against the racially integrated imagery and personnel of rock and roll and as George Wallace and other segregationist politicians claimed country music for the backlash cause.”

Country music also positioned itself as the “working man’s” music.  The songs were often about humble people working dangerous jobs, while suffering broken romances with unfaithful women, and the disdain of the elites.  This approach was broadly popular across different regions and the various ethnicities.  It had found a definite demographic niche.

“Listener surveys revealed that country music appealed largely to whites in middle-age range, twenty-five to forty-nine, with few younger listeners.  And the audience was largely blue-collar families—especially the skilled and semi-skilled sectors—with mid-range incomes and modest educations.  In the North, former southerners accounted for a vigorous portion of this market, thus approximating the start-up role they played in the Wallace crusades.  But the product had spread far beyond that base.  Country music had also become popular in ethnic neighborhoods, showing up in all sorts of blue-collar taverns….”

With the coming of the Vietnam War and the associated controversies, country music put itself firmly on the side of the war and the soldiers who had to fight it—a strategy that would again be popular with its audience.  It would represent patriotism and traditionalism.  Would this be enough to help determine the course of working class conservatism?  Gregory provides this comment.

“These are songs some critics will say, and who knows what they meant to audiences?  But they were not just songs.  Country music of this era was surrounded by political commentary.  DJs, artists, journalists, and music-buying publics recognized that music was a prime battleground for the epic conflicts of the Vietnam era.  Politicians did as well.  Many of the medium’s biggest stars signed up to help Wallace in 1968, performing with the governor as he crisscrossed the country.  Nashville’s ‘Music Row was practically a battlefield command post for George Wallace,’ observed journalist Paul Hemphill, who found also a few Nixon supporters but nary a star who publicly supported Hubert Humphrey.”

“In the years that followed, Republicans moved to take over that command post.  Repeatedly (and awkwardly) declaring his fondness for country music, President Nixon courted musicians and Nashville executives, knowing that these entertainers would help secure the new voting blocs that the Republicans counted on, working-class whites in the South and working-class whites outside the south.”

Southern whites would provide yet another factor that would drive working-class and middle-class whites in a more conservative direction: the rise of religious political activism.  The religion exported to the North and West was of a very traditional Bible-driven form.  It was tolerant of racism, but intolerant when it came to Catholics, Communists, homosexuals, and feminists.  It did not become aggressively political until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.  On the issue of abortion, the southern churches and Catholicism finally found common ground.

“Fear of Catholics had been part of what had last driven evangelicals into the political arena in the 1920s, when their voices and votes had aided the causes of prohibition, anti-immigration, and the Ku Klux Klan.”

“With the reawakening of politicized Christian conservatism, Republicans grafted moral traditionalism onto the patriotic and racial traditionalism that had been helping them win elections.  Opposition to feminism, gay rights, sex education in the schools, and especially abortion offered a new way to appeal to blue-collar and lower-middle-class whites who not long before had been consistent Democrats.”

The politicization of Christian traditionalists provided the Republicans with another opportunity to gain votes among the white working and middle classes by promising to discriminate against and restrict the civil rights of an expanded list of people.  The party once known for fiscal responsibility and civil liberties had now formed a covenant with these white voters that allowed blacks, Hispanics, immigrants of all kinds, homosexuals, and women to be considered as less than full citizens of the United States. 

Such an approach to politics would inevitably lead to someone like Donald Trump.

And that is how we arrived at where we are today.


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