It’s not news that Donald Trump appeals to white supremacists and his slowness in rebuking former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke’s support hardly qualifies as surprising at this point. What’s instructive is how right-wing figures react. Earlier this week, political troglodyte Jeffrey Lord attempted to deflect criticism by calling the Klan “a leftist terrorist organization” perpetuating violence “to further the progressive agenda.”
That, of course, is entirely wrong. A short lesson in the basics of 20th century American political history explains why.
White supremacist Southern Democrats were a key part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition. They used their large numbers, unity and seniority to exclude as many black people from as much of the New Deal benefits and protections as possible and to stop the federal government from doing anything about lynching. Then the black freedom movement and white allies insisted on civil rights. In reactionary response, those white southern Democrats left the Democratic Party en masse, as evidenced by Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat presidential campaign in 1948 and Richard Nixon’s opposition to school busing and play for segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s constituency.
White southern Democrats were explicit about their racism, and it’s no mystery that they left the party when it yielded to civil rights movement pressure, and as blacks began to make up a larger part of its constituency.
The 1948 Dixiecrat platform was pretty clear:
“We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights…We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic Convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement.”
Sharecropper and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t mince words either as she led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge in 1964 to her state’s segregationist and all-white delegation:
"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America,” Famer concluded after detailing the horrific abuses and threats she and others had endured for simply trying to register black people to vote. “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"
These black people stayed in the Democratic Party. White supremacists left and joined a Republican Party waiting with open arms. It’s pretty simple, as Lyndon Johnson supposedly put it as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law: “There goes the South for a generation.”
The Solid South shifted from the Democratic Party to the Republican one, first in national elections and then in state and local ones. White racists in the North, like reactionary Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, who became one of Nixon’s most high-profile Democratic supporters, also rallied to the New Right.
The right depends on convenient historical amnesia not only to excuse their segregationist forbearers but to defend contemporary white supremacy. Rush Limbaugh, for one, cheered Lord:
“The Republicans haven't lynched anybody. That all happened, slavery, lynchings, those were Democrats that did it…You won't have a Democrat admitting they were Democrats.”
It’s not that well-to-do liberals, ensconced in segregated bastions that provide their children with separate and unequal schools, haven’t done their part to perpetuate white supremacy. Or that Democratic politicians, like one who is running for president today, have not supported anti-black measures like mass incarceration and the stigmatization and dispossession of poor black women via welfare reform. But the idea that today’s Democratic Party is the party of militant white supremacy is profoundly wrong.
White supremacy is premised on historical ignorance. American racism is today a matter of interpreting low wages, high incarceration rates and shorter lifespans as a sign of genetic or cultural inferiority rather than something rooted in the history of American capitalism—dating all the way back to when black people were brought to the United States in chains for the purpose of forced and unpaid labor.
Likewise, poor black neighborhoods are perceived to be the product of their inhabitants’ moral failings instead of the product of what happened when millions of black people fleeing the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration were excluded from good jobs and confined to poor neighborhoods in the north. Wealth, and white wealth in particular, are seen as a reflection of its owner’s entrepreneurial spirit rather than the exploitation and dispossession of working people. The status quo’s perpetuation depends on things appearing to be other than as they truly are.