The New-Old Southern Strategy Mixes Racism and Sexism for Nasty Results

GOP presidential candidates have thrown gender dog-whistle politics into the race pot. It's looking an awful lot like the odious 1960s Southern strategy.

By Akiba Solomon Feb 28, 2012

Often, when I’m trying to sum up what sounds like a dangerously antiquated policy or idea, I’ll ask, "What is this? 1919?" That year, white anxiety and hostility over the post-World War I appearance of black advancement boiled over into a summer of racist rampages in cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

But lately 1919 hasn’t been working for me. Certainly the election of President Obama has resulted in some of the most blatant expressions of white supremacist anxiety I’ve seen in my life. But I’ve been struggling to understand how the 2008 election of the first black president of the United States syncs up with the surge of anti-choice, anti-woman political activity.

Between the near record number of state anti-choice bills, the growing Personhood movement, those stupid billboards branding abortion as Black genocide and recent skirmishes over Obama’s co-pay free contraceptive policy, 2012 is looking more and more like 1873, when Congress outlawed the interstate sale and mailing of birth control via the Comstock Law.

For decades conventional wisdom has been that reproductive healthcare is a white feminist issue, that it’s a dangerous distraction from the "real" struggles of people of color. I believe that kind of thinking has been quite comforting for folks of all races who traffic in made-up nostalgia for a time when so-called traditional values were the bedrock of American society. When I hear black stylecasters revering Old Hollywood glamour as if we weren’t "The Help" and "Strange Fruit" during that period; when I watch country groups like Lady Antebellum and The Civil Wars get love at the Grammys; when girls on the Internet joke that Chris Brown can beat them anytime, it’s clear that many of us either don’t know or care about how strong the backlash has been against the ever-intertwined struggles of racial and gender justice.

It’s a pipe dream, I know. But I sincerely hope that the surge of sometime GOP presidential frontrunner Rick Santorum will clear up a few things about how race and gender justice aren’t two different issues. 

A few months ago, the big Santorum story was about how he tried to weasel out of his race baiting comments with the ludicrous "blah people" defense. Now we’re hearing all about his extreme anti-birth control stance. And although some 99 percent of women in this country will use contraceptives in their lives, Santorum’s opponents are allowing this fool to set the tone. Note how Mitt Romney won’t even criticize him for saying things like, "Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

In fact, instead of 1919 or 1873, I’m going to shorthand this political moment with 1968, the period when Republican strategists such as Lee Atwater exploited the anger of white, pro-segregation Southern Democrats with racially coded language. In a 1980s interview, he explained the so-called Southern strategy for turning Southern Democrats into the Republicans they are today this way:

‘You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

”And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’

I haven’t found a gender-based smoking gun like this one. But I believe that the GOP presidential candidates have updated their Southern strategy to include dog whistles over women’s basic rights. 

Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, et. al. won’t come out and say, "Eff bitches, get money." They’ll just throw darts at so-called Obamacare, and trip over each other to prove how conservative they are on the backs of poor, uninsured and underemployed women who rely on low-cost reproductive healthcare, including birth control. As I always say, women of color are going to pay the steepest price for this new-old strategy. And that, ultimately, is the point, isn’t it?

Extra: Read Zerlina Maxwell’s take on the new Southern strategy here. (She thinks the key pressure points are gender and Obama’s faith.)