The other theme here is the capacity of antiquated concerns to inject themselves into the present. In that light, it’s easy to dismiss Richard Cohen’s much-excoriated column regarding Chris Christie’s chances in the next Iowa caucuses as nothing but more cultural noise. But after suggesting that the conservative base of today’s Republican party is the political heir to the Dixiecrats of the nineteen-forties—a group wholly dedicated to separation of the races—Cohen goes on to say:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
What makes this interesting is that Cohen is simultaneously right and deeply wrong, in ways that he likely didn’t suspect, and that have serious implications for our current politics. (After the uproar, Cohen told the Washington Post, “What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people. I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. In fact, I exult in them.”)
Earlier this year, Gallup reported that eighty-seven per cent of Americans saw no problem with blacks and whites getting married. A top-rated network television show features a philandering President and his P.R.-maven mistress, and viewers care more about the amorality of its characters than about the interracial relationship at its core. The views Cohen ascribed to Tea Partiers aren’t “conventional”; they’re antediluvian, a brand of racism that is still running the old operating system. But they do represent a thread connecting the politics of the past to those of the present—and it is easy to imagine the view of the embattled minority on this subject feeding the kinds of cultural resentments that have helped fuel the Tea Party’s emergence.
The super-majority in the Gallup poll is exactly the outcome the Dixiecrats presciently warned would be the byproduct of desegregation, and took as their rationale for existence. Theodore Bilbo, the segregationist governor of Mississippi, died a year before the Dixiecrat Party’s founding, but not before he penned a treatise with the none-too-subtle title “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”
Yet anyone who’s seen “12 Years a Slave” or read Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Hemingses of Monticello” knows that sex between white men and black women, whether coerced or consensual, has been a feature of this country literally since its inception. The Dixiecrats nominated Strom Thurmond for President in 1948 on a platform devoted to the preservation of segregation, though the delegates were unaware that Thurmond had, as a young man, fathered a child with a teen-age black domestic. But had this knowledge been public, it would likely not have ruined Thurmond’s standing: the most violent prohibitions were reserved for sex between black men and white women.
The people with “conventional views,” as described by Cohen, don’t actually gag at the sight of the union that produced Dante de Blasio; they gag at the type that produced Barack Obama. They don’t resent de Blasio’s marriage to a black woman; they resent a culture that offers that relationship public acknowledgement and legitimacy. It’s worth recalling that Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, centered on the union of a white man and a black woman. These laws ended at least in part because, in an ironic twist, racism had interfered with a white man’s right to choose.
Nearly a half-century later, there’s a kind of magical thinking intertwined with our various racial flashpoints—one in which the flat denial that a sentiment is racist absolves its bearer from suspicion. Defenders of Kanye’s beloved rebel battle flag—Brad Paisley excepted—have long cited it as a symbol of Southern pride rather than racial contempt. Paisley’s collaboration with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” was troubling for more than simply aesthetic reasons. If displaying the flag of a movement devoted to the preservation of slavery qualifies as inadvertent racism, then nothing short of a Bilbo-style fixation with race purity amounts to actual racism. For that reason alone it’s worth recognizing the value of Cohen’s piece: even his disclaimer couldn’t cloak the kinship between the people he’s talking about and those who united around Thurmond sixty-five years ago.
For a recalcitrant minority, there is a creeping realization, aggravated each time the President appears on their televisions, that this is not the world in which they grew up. But for the emerging electoral majority—especially those who lived through the Dixiecrat era—this is precisely the point.
Photograph by Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures/Getty.