The Politics of Race

John C. Goodman

10/15/2011 12:01:00 AM - John C. Goodman

USA Today Columnist DeWayne Wickham took presidential candidate Herman Cain to task the other day on the issue of race. His complaints: (a) Cain is vying for white votes rather than black votes, (b) Cain’s claim that blacks tend to mindlessly vote for Democrats is insulting and insensitive and (c) Cain is insufficiently critical of Republicans for pursing a racist southern strategy over the past 40 years.

Now since Cain and Wickham are both black, I’m sure that most non-black columnists will choose to sit this one out and let it be just an intramural squabble.

I think that’s wrong. All Americans, regardless of color, should find Wickham’s comments offensive for two reasons.

First, it takes a lot of chutzpah for a pro-Democratic writer to criticize a Republican for being insufficiently critical of his own party on matters of race. For all its sins, I don’t believe the party of Lincoln has anything to apologize for to the party of slavery, the party of segregation, the party of Jim Crow and a party that even today routinely uses the NAACP to run election eve, race-baiting radio commercials in order to fan the flames of racial hatred and get out the black vote.

But more is involved here than misplaced chutzpah. Wickham is simply wrong about the two parties’ roles in modern politics. I know. I was there. I grew up in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s and early 1960s. At that time, virtually all the elected officials in Waco were (a) racist, (b) segregationist and (c) Democrats. Those were the days when George Wallace, Lester Maddox and other Southern politicians would enthrall political rallies with the promise of “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever…”

Whether mindlessly or not, the black voters in my city did tend to vote for the entire Democratic ticket in election after election. As in many places today, the black church was the principal institution through which the party organized the black vote. Think about the incongruity of that. Racist politicians and black Baptist ministers delivered votes in election after election to candidates who did little or nothing to help blacks and who went around assuring whites of their dedication to segregation!

How did the national Democratic Party respond to their Southern comrades? They welcomed them at the national Democratic conventions with open arms. By “they” I mean the Kennedys, the Byrds, the Gores and other mainstays of the Democratic Party. Further, a lot of people are unaware of the fact that the 1964 Civil Rights Act received more Republican than Democratic votes in Congress.

Now a lot of Southern Democrats switched parties and became Republicans through the years. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina is an example. But the behavior of these politicians as Republicans differed markedly from their behavior as Democrats. The difference was not merely a difference of degree. It was a difference of kind.

I don’t believe you can find a single example of a Republican candidate using openly racist language of the Wallace/Maddox variety. Nor do I believe you can find a single Republican candidate openly endorsing racial segregation. The closest thing to an exception would be David Duke, who ran as a Republican for Congress in Louisiana. Duke’s past views on race were so objectionable, that national Republicans actually went to Louisiana and campaigned for his Democratic opponent.

Now, can you point to a single instance when the reverse ever happened? That is, was there ever a time when the Kennedys or the Gores ever campaigned for a Republican against a racist Democrat? Not that I can recall. And it wasn’t for lack of opportunity.

Both parties have committed many sins, including many sins involving race. But there is no moral equivalence here. Interested readers may find a lot of the gory details in Bruce Bartlett’s book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past.

Most Americans today are anxious to put party aside and race too, for that matter. What we should want to know from Herman Cain is what he wants to do for the future, not what he thinks about politics of the past.

And on that score, Herman Cain looks really good — especially if you are black and out of work. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan (9% personal income tax, 9% corporate income tax and 9% sales tax) would do much more to get the economy moving than anything being proposed by the Obama administration.