Friday, May 04, 2007

Southern Conservative History: It's not all Black and White?

The points made by Donald T. Critchlow in "What’s Wrong with the New Conservative History?" were:
First, I do not believe enough attention has been given to framing the history of conservatism more broadly within the context of modern liberalism. Second, we need to stop seeing the rightward shift in the electorate in the late twentieth century as simply a racial backlash. Both points suggest that many historians working in this field simply are not getting the full story.
Well, maybe they are:

new wave of historians, many of them young, believe that one cannot understand today’s housing, schooling, economic development or political patterns without understanding the mostly apolitical white Southerners of that era. None of these scholars play down the inbred racism of the region, but they argue that the focus on race can obscure broader economic and demographic changes, like the dizzying corporate growth, the migration of white Northerners to the South and the shifting emphasis on class interests after legal segregation ended.
Critchlow and the "new wave of historians" point to the suburbanization of southern whites as a key factor in understanding the spread of Republican conservatism in the south.
Matthew D. Lassiter was motivated to research his own Southern roots. He found a gap between the history he had learned in school and his experience growing up in its wake in Sandy Springs, a white, middle-class suburb of Atlanta. “I was trying to find my own people, my parents and grandparents,” said Mr. Lassiter, 36, who wrote “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South” (Princeton) published last year. “There were a few white Southerners who were liberals, a larger number throwing the rocks with the rioters and the vast group in the middle were left out of the story.”

As a graduate student at the University of Virginia, he taught undergraduates and assigned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice.”

Mr. Lassiter, who now teaches history at the University of Michigan, said: “Who are these moderates? They don’t seem to be participating, yet they’re completely complicit in the system of Jim Crow.”

Mr. Lassiter’s book looks at how the federal government subsidized white flight to the suburbs, where middle-class whites could embrace colorblind values but still maintain all-white enclaves and schools. “When you look at suburbs and middle class, then you start getting a national story,” he said. “White suburbs outside Charlotte are reacting the same as white suburbs outside Los Angeles or in New Jersey.”

Kevin M. Kruse, who grew up in Nashville and now teaches at Princeton University, focuses more on rank-and-file segregationists than moderates. In his 2005 book, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism” (Princeton), he argues that in moving to the suburbs, “white Southern conservatives were forced to abandon their traditional, populist, and often starkly racist demagoguery, and instead craft a new conservatism predicated on a language of rights, freedoms, and individualism.”

No comments: