By DeWayne Wickham
The lead to a recent Associated Press story about the declining influence of black lawmakers in the South reads like something written by the late Lee Atwater, the race-baiting former Republican Party chairman and GOP spin-doctor.
"(An) overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic Party has left them (black lawmakers in the South) without power in increasingly GOP-controlled state legislatures," the AP said, citing a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
In the early 1980s, Atwater was a master manipulator of the news media and crafty manager of the GOP's Southern Strategy, which uses racial fear to herd white Democrats into the Republican Party. He - like Richard Nixon before him - understood that a subtle appeal to racism would, over time, change the political landscape of the South.
This is what he said during a 1981 interview about how the GOP could marginalize blacks:
"You start out in 1954 by saying 'nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now (that) you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'nigger, nigger."
The AP story, which was published by news media outlets across the country, left out this critical context. The constant is the allegiance of blacks to the Democratic Party. That isn't news. It's the impact on these black lawmakers of the mass migration of Southern whites to the GOP that is the news.
David Bositis, a political scientist and the author of the Joint Center report, seemed to make just this point: "In most Southern states, the 46-year transition from a multiracial Democratic (Party) political dominance to a white conservative Republican political dominance is almost complete."
But while this change has taken place over nearly half a century, it has moved at warp speed over the past two years. Before the 2010 election, 51% of black legislators in the South were a part of a state legislative majority. After elections that year and this year, the number dropped to just under 5%, according to Bositis.
These changes have come in a political climate in which Republicans have craftily used the abstractions of "states' rights" and calls for lower taxes to bring more white voters into the GOP fold.
An even bigger missed story in the analysis of Bositis' report might be the connection between the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the increased pace with which Southern Democrats lost control of state legislatures - and nearly all black legislators in the old Confederacy became members of the minority party.
Instead of ushering in the post-racial era, the election of this nation's first black president has seemingly widened racial fault lines, most noticeably in the South. The Joint Center report is just the most recent evidence of this.
But just as the unchanged voting habits of black Southerners aren't responsible for the loss of political influence for black legislators in that region, Obama's election didn't forestall the end of the Jim Crow era that Republicans made an integral part of this nation's politics with their Southern Strategy - and which they continue to use as a political abstraction.
Somewhere, Atwater - who offered a suspect apology for his bad acts before his death in 1991 - must be smiling.