Sunday, November 13, 2005

Thoughts on History and Racism

It is often said that to know where you’re going you have to know from where you came. It is in that spirit that I’d like to present a condensed history of the two mainstream American political parties with regards to the issue of racism (specifically, anti-black racism). At the end, I’ll present my thoughts on the current day political implications. I don’t pretend to be an expert, so take the analysis with a grain of salt.

After a failed bid for president in 1824, Andrew Jackson formed the Democratic Party from a faction of the old Republican Party in order to defeat President John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828.

In the 1850s, the Republican Party reformed with a strongly anti-slavery platform, while the Democratic Party became increasingly associated with the expansion of slavery. Democrats in the North opposed this trend, and in 1860 the Democrats split and nominated two candidates (Stephen Douglass in the north and John Breckenridge in the south). Ironically, this split assured the victory of Abraham Lincoln who would otherwise have been unelectable due to conservative voters defecting to the newly formed, and destined to be short-lived, Constitutional Union party. The election of the eloquently anti-slavery Lincoln set the stage for the civil war, causing a further split in the Northern Democrats. On one side, War Democrats supported the military policies of Lincoln, while the Copperheads strongly opposed them.

After the war, the Democrats benefited from white Southerners’ resentment of reconstruction and hostility to the Republican Party. Once reconstruction ended, the disenfranchisement of blacks was re-established by the passage of segregationist Jim Crow laws. It was this resentment by whites and disenfranchisement of blacks that caused the south to vote reliably Democratic for several decades. In all fairness it should be noted that that neither major party tried to use federal power against the Jim Crow laws.In 1924 at the Democratic national convention, a resolution denouncing the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan was voted down by the majority of Democratic delegates. Then, during what was to become the fateful 1948 national convention, the Democratic Party adopted a pro-civil rights platform, causing a new split in the party. Led by Strom Thurmond, many Southern Democratic delegates split from the party and formed the “Dixiecrats”; many white Democrats in the south began drifting away from the party. Up to this time, blacks, who had traditionally given strong support to the Republican Party, began shifting to the Democratic Party due to FDR’s New Deal economic opportunities and Truman’s support for civil rights. The Democratic turn-around on civil rights was completed when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Four years later, Richard Nixon, with the collaboration of Strom Thurmond, crafted the now infamous Southern strategy, aimed at picking up conservative whites who were drifting away from the Democratic Party over the issue of civil rights.

I believe that the Republican Party missed two good chances to cement their well earned legacy as the party of civil rights. The first came after reconstruction with the failure to challenge the establishment of Jim Crow laws. There may have been some element of racism to this, but even more than that it probably wasn’t seen as being politically expedient for the Party to do so at that time. The second opportunity was missed when the Party didn’t embrace the civil rights movement in the 1960s. I feel that this was due to a reluctance to embrace what had become a Democratic Party plank. Nixon’s embrace of disillusioned southern whites may have been a politically savvy move, but at the cost of the moral high-ground on racial issues. Civil rights would have been a non-starter without Republican support, but this is not what the Party is remembered for.

As we move into the future and the demographic make-up of America shifts, the Republican Party needs to think about how to recapture the high-ground it once occupied on racial issues.


Blogger GraemeAnfinson said...

That is a very good analysis. Both parties have failed bad when it comes to race relations.
I don't think people should say Lincoln and the republicans were the party that wanted to eradicate slavery altogether. His position was to not let slavery expand into the territories, not outlaw slavery in states that already had slaves. He made it clear the civil war was about preserving the union, not ending slavery. I wish the gov. would have listened to people such as Thomas Paine, who wrote against slavery nearly a hundred years before the civil war and two hundred years before the civil rights act. Talk about being ahead of your time.

4:04 AM  
Blogger GraemeAnfinson said...

oops I guess you addressed that in your post about Lincoln. I didn't read that until now

4:11 AM  

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