With the Mississippi runoff for US Senate taking place tomorrow, the South and its racial history played prominently in the news this week. A New York Times article this weekend said that Democrats speaking frankly about race risk alienating rural white voters who are already moving toward Republicans. Other articles highlighted Mississippi Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith sending her daughter to a segregationist academy like the one she attended as a girl. Clearly, we haven’t reached the post-racial America envisioned by conservatives like Chief Justice John Roberts.
Hyde-Smith is lacking as a politician and opened the door to charges of racism when she made the comment that she would be in the front row of a public hanging if one of her supporters invited her. In a state where public hangings are generally associated with the lynching of African-Americans in the early 20thcentury, the comment was inappropriate to say the least. Though she eventually apologized, she complained that her words were being used against her. Well, then maybe she shouldn’t have used those words.
The remarks brought about more scrutiny of Hyde-Smith’s past. This weekend, the media went wild over revelations that she attended a segregationist academy and sent her daughter to one, too. Ironically, both her public hanging comment and her alma mater will probably help Hyde-Smith as much as it hurts her.
The white Southerners who would support Hyde-Smith would be offended at the press and progressives making such a big deal about her comment. Many would also have attended those segregationist academies that were so ubiquitous in the aftermath of the integration of schools in the South. People who might not have previously been paying much attention to a runoff in late November suddenly find themselves feeling attacked.
The race in Mississippi lays bare the divide playing out across the South right now. To many native white Southerners, a politically correct national media is attacking their way of life. Colloquialisms that they’ve used for generations are suddenly unacceptable. The schools they proudly attended are now sources of shame. The liberal media might want them to see the error of their ways, but they’re more likely to dig in, seeing the stories as impugning their heritage instead of pointing out truths.
Racial politics clearly still dominates the South. The NYT’s article says that while dynamic candidates like Andrew Gillium, Stacy Abrams and Beto O’Rourke motivated minority and progressive white voters in urban/suburban areas, they further alienated rural white voters from the Democratic Party. While the Times article presented the situation as a conundrum for Democrats, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg tweeted, “Seems like a reasonable trade for Democrats: Get weaker in already weak rural, white areas but get stronger in the suburbs.”
We’re seeing the scenario play out in North Carolina, too. While rural counties with large white populations are becoming increasingly Republican, suburban areas with rapidly growing populations are becoming more Democratic. Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, the two largest counties in the state, have only one Republican legislator each. This year, districts that have been reliably Republican abandoned the party of Trump.
The GOP’s toleration of offensive racial attitudes plays no small part in the shift. We won’t know the strength of the realignment for another election cycle or two, but right now, the GOP is appears to be a party in retreat, defending anachronistic values that newer residents of the South find alien and offensive. That said, it’s my generation that first attended those segregationist academies and we’ll be around for another 25 years or so.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >