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Old-time new Democrats.

It's Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras, and I'm in New Orleans. Both time and place seem particularly appropriate for beginning to reflect on the Clinton Presidency. Louisiana was one of the few Southern states that the Democrats won last November--despite our having been told that Clinton had to run a center-right campaign because he had to win the South. The city, which went heavily for the Clinton/Gore ticket, is predominantly black and chronically depressed economically, and the local economy shows clearly the evils of segmented labor markets. Coming back here for Mardi Gras for the first time in twenty-five years gives me an interesting occasion to think about race and change in Southern politics and the curious role of the Left in the Democratic Party.

I should state at the onset, though it's probably not a surprise to Progressive readers, that I've never been a Clinton enthusiast. His identification with the Democratic Leadership Council was reason enough for skepticism, which was reinforced by his campaign's sly pandering to white racism. Only naifs or lapdogs could miss the point when he projected himself as champion of the forgotten "middle class" and repeatedly linked "welfare reform" and "personal responsibility."

Looming over everything else about Clinton, however, is the specter of Rickey Ray Rector. Rector was the black sacrifice to the candidate's ambition. He also embodied the least common denominator of the DLC's agenda for the Democratic Party: Appeal to disaffected white voters by demonstrating willingness to get tough on minorities.

For those who may not recall, Clinton went home from the campaign trail to oversee Rector's execution by the state of Arkansas on January 24, 1992. In 1981, Rector, who had always been mentally disabled, had killed a police officer in the town of Conway and then turned the gun on himself, blowing away the front of his brain. Despite his subsequent mental impairment--described in poignant detail by Marshall Frady recently in The New Yorker--Rector was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white Conway jury. After a decade of vain appeals, the only hope left for saving his life was gubernatorial action. Clinton offered only promises to pray and other such bromides. He noted that he "personally" opposed capital punishment, but refused either to commute the death sentence or even to stay its execution. At the same time he allowed his operatives to boast that he was the only Democratic contender who had ever actually executed anyone.

Clinton is often seen as an avatar of (yet another) New South liberalism, and the DLC itself grew from the Southern wing of the party that has led the twenty-year opposition to "McGovernism." Jimmy Carter, so far--lest we forget--the most conservative Democratic President since Woodrow Wilson, first entered the national arena as part of the Stop McGovern movement at the 1972 convention in Miami. And it was no accident that the immediate precursor of the DLC, the Congressional cohorts who supported Reagan's various initiatives, was dubbed "Boll Weevil Democrats"; they were a largely Southern bunch.

As I sit here in the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans, I can't help but think of the string of incarnations of New South liberalism, leading right up to the current version. The tradition stretches back to the late 1870s and 1880s, when Atlanta booster and newspaperman Henry Grady first popularized the New South image. Grady's New South was about urbanization and industrialization; his vision was that which Atlanta's burghers still embrace--bustling commerce, construction, Progress and Prosperity. It was also, on Grady's telling, explicitly and unambiguously predicated on black subordination. That first New South was inextricably linked to the defeat of Reconstruction and, as Grady made clear, the consolidation of a regime of white supremacy.

Another New South liberalism developed after World War II, one of which I have deep, visceral recollections. When I was a kid and a young teenager, I remember quite vividly, "liberal" candidates for office would approach the illegally limited black electorate for support by representing themselves as secret friends of black interests.

"Of course, I'll have to call you |niggers' when I'm campaigning in North Louisiana (where blacks were almost entirely disenfranchised) and other such places," the standard tale went, "but you should realize that I don't really mean it; I just have to do it to get elected."

The lore of the Longs in Louisiana politics overflows with instances when Huey and his brother, Earl, cleverly used the language of race-baiting to justify delivering particular benefits to blacks in the Jim Crow context.

Earl, a basically decent man, eventually denounced the hypocrisy and injustice of white supremacy--most shockingly in a gubernatorial address to the state legislature--and departed public life in a blaze of glory. He was an almost solitary exception, though; nor did he fit the New South style of unctuous patter and empty solicitousness.

The more typical postwar, New South liberals were concerned with managing racial subordination effectively and in ways that would minimize social disruption and would not undermine the precious image of the South as a stable, increasingly "forward-looking" region.

That brings us to George Wallace. Wallace, among the best-known militant segregationist officeholders in the high period of civil-rights activism (and later reborn as a relative liberal on race several years after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act), began his career as a populist who tried to avoid the depths of white-supremacist rhetoric. He lost an election and is said to have remarked that he had been "out-niggered" and that he would never be "out-niggered" again. He wasn't.

I mention the Wallace story because it is from one angle eerily like the saga of young Bill Clinton. Clinton, as everyone knows by now, was a wunderkind, elected governor of Arkansas at age thirty-two, and a yet newer version of the New South liberal. He gained national recognition in his first term by exposing a grisly scandal at the Cummins state penitentiary, where authorities for years had been killing convicts and burying them in unmarked graves on prison grounds. He lost his first bid for re-election in the Reagan landslide of 1980, and he returned, like Wallace, chastened and vowing not to be thought too liberal again. He succeeded and, ironically, his route once again ran through Cummins. It was there that Rickey Ray Rector spent the last years of his life, and it was there that he was killed to become the new Bill Clinton's Willie Horton insurance.

Wallace's rebirth shows the considerable impact the Voting Rights Act has had on the character of New South liberalism and, for that matter, on the Democratic Party itself. Once blacks are enfranchised, open appeals to white supremacy are politically suicidal, especially for a Democrat. David Duke has now twice received 55 to 60 per cent of the white vote in statewide elections in Louisiana. He would have done so thirty years ago as well, but he'd have won. Almost every governor and senator in the South at that time was the equivalent of Duke. Black voting is the difference between then and now.

Over the past two decades we've seen the evolution of racist language carefully coded, just enough to maintain plausible deniability. From "rioters" to "welfare queens" to "middle America" to "silent majority" to "epidemic teen pregnancy" to urban underclass" to "forgotten middle class" to "personal responsibility," political rhetoric has been sprinkled with evocative references just abstract enough to permit a disingenuously righteous indignation in response to those who note the racist essence under the abstractions.

Some, like the reborn Wallace and Governor Edwin Edwards here, build biracial coalitions on a simple patronage principle, using state power to distribute incremental benefits to favored constituencies. Insofar as this newest pack of New South Democrats looks toward national politics, however, they push the DLC line: The party has become too much identified with "special interests" (another bit of the coded vocabulary), needs to "broaden" its appeal by distancing itself from the interests and concerns of minorities, workers, women, etc.

It's the same old New South.

Only a few weeks ago, here in New Orleans, a bitter conflict erupted. It is a conflict that has recurred periodically since the rise of black electoral power in the 1970s--a conflict that harkens directly back to Henry Grady's creation of the New South trope. I and generations of other New Orleanians grew up with a statue at the foot of Canal Street, the apex of downtown, commemorating the 1874 white uprising against the city's Reconstruction government. The "Battle of Liberty Place" was a white-supremacist race riot and attempted putsch in which several black policemen and others were murdered.

Once a black-led municipal government was elected, simmering protest at the statue's display burst into the open. The statue eventually was removed, and now it is being restored under pressure from whites who mainly defend their position in a language of tradition and heritage. Yet the pro-restoration forces generally reject a compromise, proposed by the city, that would accompany the monument's original plaque honoring the brigands as heroes with one that puts the uprising in context and characterizes it as the riot it was.

Similar conflicts have occurred elsewhere in recent years about public display of the Confederate flag, which several Southern states added to their state flags, incidentally, after the Brown decision as part of the Massive Resistance campaign against school desegregation. The point is that, as the objections to the compromise make indisputably clear, the "heritage" and "tradition" about which many white Southerners rhapsodize is white supremacy, even today.

I suspect and frankly hope that most readers will not find themselves startled by this take on the New South stratum from which Clinton derives himself. What startles me is the reaction I get in conversations with erstwhile leftists who advance realpolitik defenses of the Democrats' center-right strategy. By and large, they simply dismiss the execution of Rickey Rector, and imply that I'm being naively purist and should understand that "any Democrat who can get elected will have to support the death penalty." I've heard the same argument about the punitive rhetoric of welfare reform and the "middle class"/"personal responsibility" duality. They either deny or expect me to acquiesce in the strategy's accommodations to white racism.

The problem is that this line of defense just reminds me too much of my youth, when, for instance, our mayor, de Lesseps S. Morrison ("dellasoups" in Earl Long's parodic reference) would come around during his inevitably unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns to retail the standard New South liberal line, noting that it was all the more necessary for him to call us "niggers" in Protestant North Louisiana because of the need to overcome the handicap of his identification with the Catholic and suspiciously cosmopolitan city. It didn't go down well with me then.

Of course, it's not quite the same now. Behind the fog of sophistry about "universal programs" is a more or less genuine social liberalism that recognizes the need--from Wallace's and Edwards's statehouses to Clinton's White House--to open opportunities for upper-status minorities and women and to extend civil-rights protection to gays, while still catering to white prejudice and refusing to acknowledge that race and gender are directly linked to economic stratification (so much for "multiculturalism"). Clinton's appallingly weak reaction to the Rodney King/L.A. events, when he me-tooed Bush, was striking, as is his insistence on hearing feminist concerns as a matter simply of appointing women, any women, to visible positions in his Administration (a perspective that dates from the Carter Presidency).

The continuities among the old and new New Democrats make me wonder about my white colleagues who attempt, usually with hints of condescension and exasperation, to palliate me with their defensive and nonresponsive explanations. What do they see when they look at me that makes them think I'll be persuaded or reassured by those explanations--which amount, after all, to saying that black Americans, and particularly poor ones, don't have an equal right with other citizens to pursue their interests directly, through public policy, and should be quiet so as not to mess things up for others?

Am I missing something? Or are we just playing an updated theme from the end of Reconstruction?
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Author:Reed, Adolph, Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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