Joltin' Joe and the Segregationists

As AVI points out, there's no reason for anyone to defend him; he has no principles, really, he just stuck his foot in it. Furthermore, he wouldn't defend any of us in similar circumstances. Still and all, I'm going to say a few words about it, just in the interest of speaking the truth.

NRO's Kevin Williamson attempts a kind of dance here that is not completely warranted. Not that he's wrong, exactly.
Most of the segregationist Democrats of the FDR–LBJ era were committed New Dealers and, by most criteria, progressives. They largely supported welfare spending, public-works programs, the creation of the major entitlement programs, and, to a lesser extent, labor reform. They did work to ensure that African Americans were effectively excluded from many of the benefits of these programs, but they provided much of the political horsepower that carried forward the progressive project from the Great Depression on. This should not be terribly surprising: Many of the Democrats who were instrumental in the reforms of the Wilson years, the golden age of American progressivism, were virulent racists, prominent among them Woodrow Wilson himself. Given such figures as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, one might as easily write that progressives of both parties were racists.
It's definitely true that progressives of the early 20th century were committed racists. That's where eugenics came from -- from the very same people who believed in evolution from the apes when most of the country still did not. The very same willingness to question tradition in the light of science was at work in both projects. Because man could evolve from an ape through breeding, man could revert to an ape via the same process. Abortion and careful selection were about ensuring the continued improvement of the species, and barring 'the wrong kinds' from breeding as much as possible was about the very same thing. You didn't have to believe in race, or use it as a proxy for excellent genetics, but people at that time generally did believe in it. Until the depth of evil was revealed by the Nazi embrace of eugenics, this was just another way of being scientifically minded, forward thinking, progressive.

However, it's not just progressives who have to bear the weight of the segregationist history. The fact is the South had a lot of progressives who wanted to make progress on race, too. They wanted to do it a bit at a time, because if you moved too fast too far it could provoke dangerous disruptions. The history of lynching wasn't history quite yet, and they both wanted to do better by their black neighbors, and feared to go too fast. Pretty much every one of these figures was driven out of office after Brown v. the Board of Education.

The full-throated embrace of segregation was, then, reactionary rather than progressive. It was a reaction of exactly the kind the good-hearted moderates had warned about. For a generation or so, no one who wanted to be elected to office from the South could avoid being a segregationist. If you wanted a political career, you'd play along because it was what the majority strongly wanted.

Some people I generally think well of played along, and felt bad about it later. Zell Miller, for example, was a segregationist in his youth because he wanted to be a politician. He was a very successful politician, but by the time he had risen to the rank of governor, he began to try to fix his mistakes. Zell tried to remove the Confederate battle flag from Georgia's state flag, and it almost ended his career. (Later governors succeeded by trickery, rather than by getting a vote past the citizens; and actually, the current Georgia flag is almost identical to the first Confederate National Flag, which to my way of thinking is worse. At least the Confederate army had the virtues of brave soldiers; the Confederate government had no virtues I can see.) He did his best to heal the wounds he'd helped to cause, and I hope he managed to heal some of them.

I figure Zell is as close to a political progenitor as I have. He came out of the Jacksonian wing of the Southern Democrats, and while he believed in using government for progress (he created the Hope scholarship, which sent me to college), he was a conservative as much as anything. He gave the keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when Bill Clinton was supposed to be a new and more centrist kind of Democrat; he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, in which he personally burned John Kerry's presidential hopes to the ground as thoroughly as Sherman had burned the city where Zell later governed. He was an outstanding Senator, a good governor, and a fine lieutenant governor. I'm not much in favor of government or politicians as a rule, but he was as good a one as I ever knew.

And he was definitely at one time a segregationist.

Joe Biden may not really believe what he said (which, by the way, implied strict disagreement with segregationists). But it's exactly the kind of sentiment that made me feel better about Bernie Sanders. I can't think of two political positions that Bernie and I have in common, but his friendship with and respect for Jim Webb made me think he could be OK. The ability to look past even serious differences and find common ground is in fact praiseworthy. It's hard. There's no guarantee it will work, certainly not that it can work forever. But if we can show each other respect, sometimes we can develop friendships even when we disagree very deeply. And that's the only way a big, complex, diverse society like ours could possibly work.

If we really can't do that anymore, America is over. Joe Biden is right about this, even if he doesn't mean it. Bernie Sanders is right about it, by example. Those trying to make this kind of outreach unacceptable are plain wrong, and they're running us up on the rocks with their poison.

And that's the truth, as far as I can tell.


E Hines said...

The thing that irritates me about Biden's words and the Left's hue and cry over them is the hue and cry.

On its face, Biden's statement was a disparagement of the segregationists: he could work even with such as they, if the task at hand were important enough. Leave aside the level of Biden's sincerity in his statement, that's not important.

What Booker and Harris, and others of their ilk, have done is cynically distort his statement into a praise of those segregationists and to label his statement as racist for that. This stinks. Manufacturing a racist beef out of nothingness does nothing but expose Booker's and Harris' own racism. And theirs is an especially venal racism: they're not being racist because they actually believe it; they're being racist because they think it will benefit them personally, politically.

And: they think because they're black they can play their racist card with impunity.

That insults our intelligence. But that's part and parcel of their general contempt for ordinary Americans.

Eric Hines

james said...

And they pretty explicitly claim that the rest of us are either supporters of racists or followers of Booker et al.

They don't have the authority to make that kind of demand.

Grim said...

... expose Booker's and Harris' own racism. And theirs is an especially venal racism: they're not being racist because they actually believe it; they're being racist because they think it will benefit them personally, politically.

That could be. I can't tell with Booker, who seems just to be hysterical all the time about everything. He may just not be able to discern the difference between a reasonable point and anything else, since he seems to have little familiarity with reason. Harris, though, is clearly venomous and cynical. She is without doubt the worst of the plausible Presidential field. (Swalwell may be worse even than her, but he's polling at zero percent so I don't take him for a plausible candidate.)

Dad29 said...

Well, the Race=Genetics crowd remains active, particularly with the scrivenings of an ex-pat native of Minnesota.

Booker and Harris are trash.

douglas said...

To be fair to Slow Joe, he said nothing racist, BUT he should have known that comparing his being referred to with "son" with a black person being referred to as "boy" was stepping in it. Son is often more of a friendly check than an insult, with the other there is no doubt it's an insult. It was clumsy at best, stupid more likely, and insulting in it's ignorance and insensitivity at the harshest reading, which they jumped on, of course. And given his remark about Romney and the GOP at the time of his campaign for president about "gonna put y'all back in chains", I have little sympathy for him getting eaten by the alligator he thought would work for him.

Grim said...

You must be aware of a set of comments I haven't encountered, Douglas. I was just talking about Joe's comment that he thought that working with people with whom one disagreed was necessary for successful politics -- giving the example of himself having worked with segregationists.

douglas said...

Can't find anyone with the full quote unclipped, but here's a typical news report with it.

When I saw the full quote, the impression I had was that he was trying to sound sympathetic but not directly comparing himself to blacks by saying that 'at least I know what it's like to be called son, if not boy', but it was quite tone deaf.

E Hines said...

Yeah, subsequent to Biden's "I work with bad people, too" remark, he also referred to being called son by a black Congressman and how that was no big deal (I didn't hear anything about "boy," though).

On the evil of being called "boy," though, that's heavily contextual. I grew up in an area where we all called each other "boy" (albeit in the plural) interchangeably with "men," "guys," and the like. Too often, the context gets ignored.

Eric Hines