Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, by Bruce Bartlett (Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pp., $26.95)
Two years ago, on his Daily Kos website, Markos Moulitsas asked: “Is it any wonder the GOP is the party of racists?” While Moulitsas conceded that “not every Republican is a racist,” he maintained that “the opposite—every racist is a Republican—is just about right.”
Such sentiments typify a common view that racism is the soul of the Republican Party, and that black Republicans are traitors to their race, or at least peculiar. Bruce Bartlett sets the record straight in Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, in which he observes to the contrary that “virtually every significant racist in American political history was a Democrat.” Democrats are today best known as the party of the “little man,” but the party’s original agrarian base included plantation owners distinctly uninterested in the abolition of slavery. The Democratic Party, then, was home to politicians determined to maintain blacks as possessions.
Bartlett begins his history, naturally enough, with the now-familiar contradictions in the life of Thomas Jefferson—apostle of liberty, slaveholder, and founder of what would become the modern Democratic Party. He continues with former presidents such as Andrew Johnson, who welcomed prominent ex-Confederates back into Congress and fought civil rights legislation, and Woodrow Wilson, who segregated federal government buildings and barely allowed any black participation in his administration. Franklin D. Roosevelt, meanwhile, appointed a Klansman to the Supreme Court and largely ignored black concerns, reluctant to jeopardize his relationship with Southern committee chairmen.
John F. Kennedy’s racial priorities were similar to Roosevelt’s; his few progressive efforts on racial questions were due to political expediency. Kennedy would have done nothing significant for black Americans had the growing political and public-relations problem of Jim Crow in the South not forced his hand. The influence of television—and America’s ongoing propaganda war with the Soviet Union, in which the Soviets could cite American hypocrisy on human rights—made it imperative for Kennedy to act.
Bartlett also examines the roles of lesser-known figures like Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi, an ardent defender of lynching who also spoke of his love for the “Mammy” who helped raise him. Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi tirelessly advocated that blacks be given their own state in the West, in order to ensure that no one would force “our Southern girls to use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic nigger women.” All of these characters, and many others whom Bartlett profiles, were Democrats.
Some readers will value this book as an historical chronicle of American racism in the “never forget” vein, but Bartlett’s aim is more concrete: he hopes to dissuade black Americans from voting monolithically for “the party to which their greatest oppressors belonged.” Yet the number of black people who will start voting Republican upon learning that Woodrow Wilson didn’t like them is minuscule. The figures whom Bartlett covers were not only Democrats but Southerners, and it will be no surprise to contemporary readers that white Southerners tended to be open bigots back in the day. In addition, the Democratic Party’s platform has changed so substantially since then, and the political landscape with it, that treating the Democratic Parties of 1850, 1910, and 2008 as a single entity doesn’t make much sense.
Where Wrong on Race does have contemporary relevance is in clearing away myths about Republican racism. Bartlett debunks the widely held view, for example, that Richard Nixon courted racist white votes in the South in 1968. Nixon could not have pulled off such a thing, since George Wallace—who had the racism market pretty well cornered—was running as a third-party candidate. Once in office, Nixon helped initiate affirmative action and did more to desegregate holdout Southern schools than any president since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In 1968, a year before Nixon entered the White House, 68 percent of black students in the South went to all-black schools; just two years later, in 1970, only 14 percent did. Similarly, Bartlett points out that Ronald Reagan was accused of racism largely because of his opposition to the government programs that many blacks had come to depend on since the sixties. Reagan developed his small-government convictions, however, long before he entered politics, and hardly with blacks in mind. Blacks’ median income actually rose during Reagan’s terms in office.
For all of their rhetoric on race, the Democrats, Bartlett argues, will likely concentrate most closely on the Latino vote in the near future—especially as the perceived anti-immigrant tendency in the Republican Party leads Latinos to the Democrats in greater numbers. He argues compellingly that if blacks increased their Republican vote by 10 to 20 percent, they would qualify as an important voting bloc in the party. So far, so good. But Bartlett also makes the dubious argument that reparations would make blacks feel welcome under a Republican Big Tent, which would pave the way for the elimination of affirmative action. More likely, blacks would indignantly regard the suggestion as a bribe, and incantations like “Katrina” and “Willie Horton” would continue to substitute for serious thought about how to make Black Power more than a slogan.
In fact, the younger generation of blacks, growing up in an increasingly multiracial America, will be less encumbered by the reflexive sense that voting Republican is somehow straying from racial authenticity. In the meantime, Bartlett’s book, especially its later chapters, provides a useful perspective for blacks interested in resisting, once and for all, the idea that any political party should own their votes.