Will The Racist South Vote for Obama?

That is already the working headline for some news organizations — both liberal and conservative.

The South may be the nation’s largest region by population with a full quarter of its residents being non-natives; it may be the region where most blacks are moving to from the North in search of better job and family opportunities (according to the U.S. Census Bureau); and it may be the region from where three of the last five presidents have originated. But, none of that may matter when it comes to stereotyping The South for this presidential election.

All of the old, derogatory descriptions of Southerners are already being dusted off to drop into news stories and man-in-the-street interviews with voters. You may soon hear and read that white Southerners are bigoted, racist, backwards, ‘bacca-chewing, ‘shine-drinking, gun-toting rednecks still fighting The Civil War who will never elect a black man president of the United States. Okay, to be honest, some of us still drink ‘shine and tote guns, but the rest of that characterization is an exaggeration or not true at all.

Try telling that to the Yankee press.

In the June 16 issue of New York magazine writer Kurt Andersen listed 10 worries that he had about Obama’s quest for the presidency. Number five was “Presidential elections are Civil War reenactments — in which the North can lose.” Andersen went on to say that “1860s cartography — Union states and border states and Confederate states — remain salient. And the balance of sentiment concerning the Negro Question still powerfully determines which states may be red and which blue.” Andersen predicted McCain will win “every Confederate state.”

On June 10 ran a story by reporter David Mark describing Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s comments and writings about his Confederate ancestors as “quirky and potentially troublesome,” since “the slightest sign of support or statement of understanding of the Confederate cause has the potential to alienate African-Americans who are acutely sensitive to the topic.”

Curiously, accusing Southerners of still longing for the days when there were three classes of people; slaves, slave holders, and slave holder wannabees is not the sole prerogative of liberals.

After the story ran, Sean Hannity railed about Webb on his segment of Hannity and Colmes, asking if that was the kind of [implied racist] Democrat who Obama should be considering for his vice presidential running mate. Colmes, apparently caught flat-footed by Republican Hannity’s rage against the Confederacy, stammered while trying to think of a way to defend fellow Democrat Webb who inexplicably had kind words to say about his Confederate ancestors and their Yankee-fighting neighbors.

In contrast to Hannity and Colmes attacking Webb, and thereby all Southerners who honor their Confederate ancestors, the ultra-liberal Huffington Post has been more sedate. Its only prediction so far is: “Despite Obama’s impressive primary victory in Virginia, there is also the possibility that race might rear its head in the former headquarters of the Confederacy.”

While it would seem conventional wisdom for Senator John McCain to defend his base of conservative voters in The South against the charges that they are racist because three quarters of them have Confederate ancestors, he will not do it. Back in 2000 McCain said Confederate service should not be “commemorated in a way that offends, that deeply hurts people whose ancestors were once denied their freedom by my ancestors.” The senator didn’t explain how he preferred Southerners honor their ancestors, but the implication was clear; anyone who honors the Confederate battle flag is a racist — overt or closeted. 

How can The South change this firmly fixed image in the minds of political pundits that our region is still controlled by burly white sheriffs hosing down protesters, and sicking dogs on black people while the Klan waves battle flags in the background? I am not sure we can. The 40-year-old grainy images are too juicy not to be brought out of the TV vaults. I would not be surprised if those old black and white images were color-enhanced to make them seem like they were recorded in more recent times than the 1950s and 1960s.

However, I have a dream. What I would like to see happen is for news reporters and pundits to treat The South just like any other region populated by liberals and conservatives.

They should not be asking the question: “Will The South vote for a black person for high public office?” The answer to that was answered a long time ago.  The South elected Doug Wilder of Virginia more than 20 years before The North elected its first black governor. Just two years ago conservative Southerners in Maryland tried to elect their black lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, to the U.S. Senate, but the liberals in Maryland voted him down. It was the liberals who refused to vote for a black man. The Maryland conservatives, many of who had Confederate roots, voted for Steele, hoping to put a black conservative senator into office to counterbalance the black liberal Obama.

The question the news media and pundits should be asking is: “Can Obama convince an always skeptical, conservative South that more big federal government and an ultra-liberal president of any color is good for the nation?”

There are some pundits in the Southern press who believe Obama can sell that message to voters of all colors. Voters will either buy it or reject it. It will not matter if the candidate is black or if the majority of voters are white and have Confederate ancestry.

It may be beside the larger national point of looking at The South as a whole, but a recent poll of South Carolinians found that 64 percent of Palmetto Staters say presidential candidates have no business commenting on the state issue of a Confederate battle flag flying beside a war memorial on the South Carolina capitol grounds.

The poll reflects a long standing Southern tradition — we don’t like outsiders coming down here and telling us what to do with our lives. We don’t care how they do it up North.