Heading south

Posted: Jan 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Since I am in the unenviable position of writing this column before the results of the Iowa caucuses are in and before the president's State of the Union address, I've decided to turn my focus to the South, where political pundits will soon be turning their attention. Since the subject of race inevitably will come up, let's review a little background.

Last year, InsiderAdvantage surveyed several Southern states and found that both white and African American respondents said the media makes too much of the issue of race relations. A good illustration of their views could be found in Atlanta last week, where President George W. Bush laid a wreath at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King.

A crowd of protesters jeered the president. Much of the media made it appear that they numbered "well over a thousand." Not reported was that this protest formed around a small group of veteran social activists who were holding their own meeting nearby. Their get-together was inconvenienced by the security measures taken to accommodate Bush.

With incomplete media coverage like this, it's little wonder people like Howard Dean believe the modern South is made up of nothing but oppressed African Americans and white good ol' boys racing their pickup trucks decorated with Confederate flags. Similarly, one might suspect Southern African American leaders, including the King family, would have no connection with Republicans or other conservatives. But they do.

As someone who grew up in Atlanta while Dr. King was alive, I have gone beyond witnessing the transformation called the New South to the point where I now take it for granted. Most of us here are so busy working and otherwise living our lives that we don't mark in our minds the race of our associates and companions. Likewise, as long as I've known them, I don't think either Martin Jr. or Dexter King have ever given a second thought to my political views or my skin color, nor have I to theirs. Instead, we work on projects or seek to help one another out of sense of friendship and community.

As I view the mass-media version of race relations in the United States, I see a perpetuation of the notion that racial unrest -- perhaps violence -- is always just beneath the surface. Perhaps the deep divide in opinion over high-profile trials such as Michael Jackson's and Kobe Bryant's might fuel such happenings down the road. But, for now, those feelings are mostly absent in this, the nation's region with the highest concentration of African Americans.

If this sounds like a Pollyannish depiction of Old Dixie, let it be known that there remain sizeable blocs of Southern blacks who are poverty-stricken and seemingly unable to escape a destructive cycle of teenage pregnancy, ill education and poor health. Things are far from perfect. But as we've noted here before, the South is the home to the fastest-growing segment of successful, affluent African Americans in the nation. Mayors, business leaders, entertainers and a legion of managerial and professional level blacks can be found in every major metropolitan city in the South -- places where most Southerners of all races now live, either downtown or in the suburbs.

As the Democratic presidential contest soon comes to states like South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, the candidates will find themselves unable to ignore race as they could in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which racially are mostly homogeneous. Suddenly, they will focus on the time-honored tradition of racial politics, and the unique history and culture that spawned it. They will walk a tightrope, trying to balance appeals to "the black community" without offending "crackers and rednecks."

So here's a caution to those presidential aspirants: Just as the president's visit to MLK's tomb wasn't what it seemed, neither will the traditional, trite characterizations of Southern voters soon to come. As civil rights activists are quick to note, "We have a long way to go." But were he alive today, I doubt Dr. King would deny that the South is a different world from the days of his activism.