The Southern Strategy Goes to School

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n*****’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N*****, n*****.’ ”

Lee Atwater’s strategy in this quotation from Alexander Lamis’s 1984 book, The Two-Party South, is on full display in the current Republican apoplectic aneurysm over Critical Race Theory (CRT).

As Sir Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  Apparently, if there isn’t a crisis to use, the modern GOP will simply create one.

There is a long history of success using this strategy:

-Welfare mothers
-Crack babies
-Super predators
-Willie Horton
-Confederate statues
-Black Lives Matter
-Critical Race Theory

The names change, but the strategy remains. The strategy, however, is not racism; that is merely the tool. The strategy is fear.

In their book, The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics, Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields state:

“It is more than ‘backlash politics.’ It is orchestrated backlash politics. Campaigns made choices, set fires, and even poured on the gasoline if accelerant was needed, which is why the passage of time has not, in fact extinguished such prejudice. It is kept aflame as long as it is stoked.”

Critical Race Theory is not being taught in any elementary, middle, or high school in Virginia. However, across the Commonwealth, school boards are being asked to prove a negative, and when they can’t, because one cannot prove a negative, that is used as irrefutable proof that the schools are hiding something. It is a self-created political sleight of hand.

So when Glenn Youngkin stands in front of the Loudoun County school administration building and declares that he will fight CRT, he is using a page directly out of the Atwater playbook. When his wife comes to Prince William County and announces that it was parents who first stood up against CRT, not politicians. This opposition, she claimed, was due to remote learning and parents seeing for the first time that their children were being brainwashed.

Of course, her argument leaves out the obvious fact that this political juggernaut did not gain any steam until after children left school for the summer and presumably had returned their CRT-laced textbooks while also assuming that the parents now completely invested in protecting their children from CRT never checked those very same children’s homework before the pandemic.

Fear and distraction have replaced bread and circuses as the chief tools of modern politics. While CRT is not happening in any Loudoun County school today, in November 2020 those same schools were found to have violated the Virginia Human Rights Act, Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and Titles IV and VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This ruling was in response to a May 2019 complaint by the NAACP Loudoun Branch, and 2019 also happens to have been when a Democratic majority was elected to the Loudoun School Board sending several incumbents into retirement.

Instead of reflecting on how Loudoun County schools were found to have been discriminatory against African-American and Latino students when the county was red, Republicans have decided that they will use the response to that suit, an equity policy, as the basis to falsely claim that a graduate-level legal theory is being taught to elementary school children, thus distracting from the original issue while purposefully creating a fear among parents that their children are going to be taught to hate themselves because they are white. Atwater was right; that is much more abstract than simply yelling “N*****.”

So why bring this up on a conservative blog? Because truth matters. Every Republican in Virginia seems to have shared Doug Wilder’s recent assessment of Terry McAuliffe. Wilder makes some very good points and does not seem to be afraid to call out members of his own party, a trait lauded by Republicans … as long as it is Democrats pointing at their own.

Republicans would be better served to learn the lesson being taught by Doug Wilder instead of continuing to rely on the lessons of Lee Atwater. Stop using fear, distraction, and lies as campaign strategies. Admit that CRT is not being taught in schools. Acknowledge that after exhaustive searches in Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia, there was no voter fraud. Stop pushing to pass voting restrictions that have a higher impact on minorities. In other words, back away from fear and step towards truth.

Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince still holds true: “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” The times have changed, and so too must the Republican Party.

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