July 15, 2007

The Democratic Party's Legacy of Racism

Mac Owens

In December 2002, I got myself into a heap of trouble by writing an op-ed for the Providence Journal arguing that, despite its current reputation as the party of racial progress, the real legacy of the Democratic Party was racism and slavery (“The Democratic Party’s Legacy of Racism”). The catalyst was the reaction of the press and many Democrats to the remarks of Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) during a birthday celebration for the late Strom Thurmond.

The Senate minority leader at the time, Tom Daschle said on CNN that "Republicans have to prove, not only to us, of course, but to the American people that they are as sensitive to this question of racism, this question of civil rights, this question of equal opportunity, as they say they are." Among high-profile Democrats, Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer offered similar comments.

I wrote:

It’s about time that Republicans quit pussy-footing around on the issue of race. They need to point out that in both principle and practice, the Republican Party has a far better record than the Democrats on race. Even more importantly, they need to stress that on the issues that most affect African-Americans today, the Democratic position represents racism of the most offensive sort—a patronizing racism that denigrates Blacks every bit as badly as the old racism of Jim Crow and segregation.

Republicans can begin by observing that their Party was founded on the basis of principles invoked by Abraham Lincoln. He himself recurred to the principles of the American Founding, specifically the Declaration of Independence, so we can say that the principles of the Republican Party are the principles of the nation. In essence these principles hold that the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government. They are the rights invoked by the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.

We should remember that the Republican Party was created in response to a crisis arising from the fact that American public opinion on the issue of slavery had drifted away from the principles of the Founding. While the Founders had tolerated slavery out of necessity, many Americans, especially within the Democratic Party, had come to accept the idea that slavery was a "positive good." While Thomas Jefferson, the founder of what evolved into the Democratic Party, had argued that slavery was bad not only for the slave but also for the slave owner, John C. Calhoun, had turned this principle on its head: slavery was good not only for the slave holder, but also for the slave.

Calhoun’s fundamental enterprise was to defend the institution of slavery. To do so, he first had to overturn the principles of the American Founding. He started with the Declaration of Independence, arguing that "[the proposition ’all men are created equal’] as now understood, has become the most false and dangerous of all political errors....We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of independence." Thus Calhoun transformed the Democratic Party of Jefferson into the Party of Slavery.

The most liberal position among ante-bellum Democrats regarding slavery was that slavery was an issue that should be decided by popular vote. For example, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in the 1858 Illinois senate race and the 1860 presidential campaign, advocated "popular sovereignty." He defended the right of the people in the territories to outlaw slavery, but also defended the right of Southerners to own slaves and transport them to the new territories.

The Democratic Party’s war against African-Americans continued after the Civil War (which many Democrats in fact opposed, often working actively to undercut the Union war effort). Democrats, both north and south fought the attempt to implement the equality for African-Americans gained at such a high cost. This opposition was often violent. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan operated as the de facto terrorist arm of the national Democratic Party during Reconstruction.

Democrats defeated Reconstruction in the end and on its ruins created Jim Crow. Democratic liberalism did not extend to issue of race. Woodrow Wilson was the quintessential "liberal racist," a species of Democrat that later included the likes of William Fulbright of Arkansas, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, and Albert Gore, father of Al, of Tennessee.

In the 1920s, the Republican Party platform routinely called for anti-lynching legislation. The Democrats rejected such calls in their own platforms. When FDR forged the New Deal, he was able to pry Blacks away from their traditional attachment to the Party of Lincoln. But they remained in their dependent status, Democrats by virtue of political expediency, not principle….

Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which supposedly established the Democrats’ bona fides on race, was passed in spite of the Democrats rather than because of them. Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen pushed the bill through the Senate, despite the no-votes of 21 Democrats, including Gore Sr. and Robert Byrd, who remains a powerful force in the Senate today. In contrast, only four Republicans opposed the bill, mostly like Barry Goldwater on libertarian principles, not segregationist ones.

Indeed, the case of Sen. Byrd is instructive when it comes to the double standard applied to the two parties when it comes to race. Even those Democrats who have exploited the Lott affair acknowledge that he is no racist. Can the same be said about Sen. Byrd, who was a member of the KKK and who recently used the "n" word on national TV?

Recently at The Remedy, the blog of the Claremont Institute in California, my old friend Richard Reeb made a similar argument.

Democrats and the Black Voter

Hard and Soft Bigotry

The Democratic Party as an organized entity has been around at least since its first presidential nominating convention in 1832, when Andrew Jackson sought, and won, a second term. John Hawkins, a Town Hall columnist and a blogger at Conservative Grapevine and Right Wing News, finds little to support the notion that the Democrats have been good for black Americans, alternating between what I call hard despotism (slavery, segregation, lynching) and soft despotism (Great Society welfare and the disintegrating black family, failing schools and powerful teachers' unions, rising crime, illegal immigration, multiculturalism and abortion. This last has some dirty little secrets.). The thread connecting the old and new despotism is that blacks are treated by Democrats as incapable of exercising the full rights of American citizenship, either by holding them down by force or custom or by patronizing them as little children in need of perpetual government care. Why?

It needs to be said more that the period of Jacksonian Democracy, during which the franchise was extended to more and more citizens, was also the occasion for taking it away from blacks who had, in some cases, the right to vote in a few states, North and South, since the time of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The Democratic Party soon became the party of slavery as a "positive good" in the South, and the party of "popular sovereigny" (or "don't care" whether slavery is voted up or down) in the North. Northern Copperheads and Southern secessionists did all they could to frustrate Negro emancipation during the Civil War. Following the war, that effort continued, culminating in the notorious bargain of 1876, according to which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes' election was acquiesed in (with three southern states and an elector in Oregon in dispute), meeting the demand of the Democrats that Union troops be removed in the states where they were still in occupation (interestingly, in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, where the electors were in dispute!). In other words, the end of Reconstruction was a political bargain that ended federal efforts, for all practical purposes, to enforce the constitutional rights of black citizens.

The 20th century Democratic bargain, the New Deal of the 1930s, was to provide big government assistance to the impoverished, including many blacks who abandoned their historic loyalty to the Republican party that emancipated them, while continuing racial segregation of and discrimination against blacks in our southern (and some border) states. The next wave of Democratic governance in the 1960s practically put blacks on what has rightly been called "the liberal plantation." Blacks are not only supposed to be eternally grateful but never to consider voting for a Republican or, more to the point, ever claiming that he or she rose in income, status, or prestige by his or her own efforts.

The Democratic Party has always appealed to the "democracy" as opposed to the "republic" which was the principled basis of the Federalist, the Whig and the Republican party. As my friend and colleague, Prof. Richard L. Williams of Glendale College has argued, Democrats are the party of appetite--of slave masters, Klansmen, lynchers, and racists in the past, now socialists, hate America firsters, the sexually liberated, abortionists and environmental extremists. However mixed its history, the Republican party heritage is one of constitutional government, free enterprise, patriotism even when it's not cool, well-governed families, and conservation, not worship, of natural resources.

A party that alternately oppresses and condescends to its supposed inferiors has difficulty following the Aristotelian principle of "ruling and being ruled in turn." Every moment the Republican party is in power is an opportunity for crying illegitimacy, and every moment of the Democratic party in power is an opportunity to make the nation over according to the desires of elite planners. The Democratic party has been a great party when it briefly transcended those limitations in the 1940s and 1960s, and the Republican has not when it felt compelled to kowtow to Democrats in me-too periods, most notably the 1970s. Political leaders of a legitimate political party treat their fellow citizens as equals, not as subjects to beaten down or nurse-maided.

In this day and age, why in the world do African-American voters maintain loyalty to a party with such a legacy of racism?

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In this day and age, why in the world do African-American voters maintain loyalty to a party with such a legacy of racism?
XXX I don't think there's any mystery to that. Democrats support preferences for blacks over whites in hiring, college admissions, government contracts, etc..
The real mystery is why so many whites support the Democrat party. My answer: Incompetent Republican rule and a refusal to seal the border while imposing a quasi-police state on its citizens. For instance (though you don't hear it all that much anymore) the laughable Republican mantra "get the government off our backs" which collides with the reality of the world's largest prison system, citizens held in jail without trial in "Star Chamber" like proceedings, money transfer restrictions, illegal wiretaps and searches as routine S.O.P., not to mention "Cick It Or Ticket", victimless crime laws, routine torture as public policy, etc. To cap it off an obscenely bloated military/national security industrial complex expanding far beyond the capabilities of the taxpayers to sustain, trillions upon trillions of dollars of debt, a currency which seems poised to suffer a Brazil style implosion and a foreign policy iminical to American interests and devoted to those of the nuclear armed apartheid theocracy in Tel Aviv.
That's the short list.
To turn a Truman phrase on its head "If you give the people a choice between Big Government and Big Government they will choose Big Government"

Posted by: Mike at July 15, 2007 8:47 AM

Dear Mac,

Up until the Voting Rights Act, which LBJ predicted "would lose the South for years to come", you are exactly correct.

However, since that day, all those folks, foreshadowed by Strom Thurmond in 1948, have left and now hang out with the Republicans. In the South, the religous right and the white supremacy crowd are very close friends.

Elections, which has been demonstrated time and time again, are about the future, not the past. Everyone realizes that from Carcieri to Bush, the GOP cannot govern. May say some nice things, but cannot govern.

When the people need government to do the right thing, other than go to war, there is no reason for them pick the GOP in the Legislative Branch. The mini-realignment is over. It lasted all of 12 years.

One more move by the Supreme Court on abortion, again showing that the GOP cannot be trusted to protect Liberty, and we could be right back where we were circa 1978.

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at July 15, 2007 9:35 AM

It is extremely valuable to point out the pro-slavery and racist history of the Democratic Party, the fact that the Southern wing of the Democratcs persisted in that racism into and through the 1960s, and the fact that some Democrats today remain racist.

If you want to carry this story even further, read Ira Katznelson's "When Affirmative Action was White", which shows that the New Deal provided whites with benefits that it denied to blacks. This was largely the result of the influence of the Southern Dems., but FDR's own record on race was very mixed. (But for a contrasting view, see Kevin McMahon's "Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race".)

Nonetheless, the concluding question, "In this day and age, why in the world do African-American voters maintain loyalty to a party with such a legacy of racism? " seems easy to answer. They base their decisions on a party's current and recent policies, rather than policies from 50 or 150 years ago.

Please note that I am not praising the Democractic Party's racial policies here, just saying that the argument that African-Americans should reject the Democrats or embrace the GOP because of Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and Strom Thurmond was a Democrat stikes me as unconvincing.

Posted by: Thomas at July 15, 2007 10:56 AM

Lyndon Johnson's movement from virulent segregationist to civil rights crusader is one of the most fascinating and important political transformations American history.

Robert Caro discusses its beginning in volume 3 of his Johnson biography, "Master of the Senate," and I'm sure we will learn more in the next volume.

Political pundits and commentators today tend to oversimplify differences between the parties. No issue evades this treatment more completely than the issue of race. Keep in mind that Richard Nixon had solid support among Black leaders in 1960 (MLK, Sr. endorsed Nixon initially -- because he did not want to support a Catholic!)

Posted by: brassband at July 15, 2007 11:13 AM


Indeed. Which reminds me that Nixon also issued an executive order which established affirmative action in hiring. In his memoir, RN, he said, "A good job is as basic and important a civil right as a good education . . . I felt that the plan [Labor Secretary George] Shultz devised, which would require such action by law, was both necessary and right. We would not impose quotas, but would require federal contractors to show affirmative action' to meet the goals of increasing minority employment."

The relation of race and party is complicated and convoluted. Mac deserves credit for reminding us that things are not always black and white as they seem. (excuse the pun).

Posted by: Thomas at July 15, 2007 11:25 AM

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the current republicans have shown an indifference to minorities in their recent history.


How come Tancredo was the only Republican to show up at a NAACP forum?

How about the fact that those democrats you described switched over to the Republican party in the 1960's?

How about the idea that the Repblican instance on places like Bob Jones University getting money despite their history of segregation?

Posted by: George at July 15, 2007 1:49 PM

Oh please. Nice try Mac. Does this mean that since 1964 it is the republican party that has assumed the mantle of the racist party? Seems like it to me, based on your analysis....

Posted by: Pat at July 15, 2007 7:59 PM


Excellent piece. The modern day validation of your views are found in the Democratic party obstructionist stance on pulic education reform particularly in the urban centers of America.


The NAACP is yesterday's news. The Urban League is the power organization these days. Who shows up to their events George? Maybe it's time you update those 1960's talking points of yours?

Posted by: Tim at July 16, 2007 6:51 AM

Tim said,
"The NAACP is yesterday's news."

Somebody had better tell that to Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman. He went to a 2005 NAACP meeting and apologized for the racially devisive practices of the GOP:

He said, "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." (Washington post, 7/14/05)

I know some will react with skepticism, but I for one would like to congratulate Mehlman and the RNC for their honesty.

Posted by: Thomas at July 16, 2007 9:34 AM


The NAACP is yesterday's news. Sorry!

Posted by: Tim at July 16, 2007 7:39 PM

Tim says (again): "The NAACP is yesterday's news"

If you say it three times, does that make it true?

(OK, I'll ask for evidence, but I'm not holding my breath)

Posted by: Thomas at July 16, 2007 11:21 PM
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