The Southern Strategy

The Southern Strategy


Political Tropes and Institutionalized Racism

The Southern strategy is a powerful political trope in United States politics — a recurring theme analysts and historians use to explain political occurrences. The term came to fruition in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a political strategy that asserts “a top-down thesis of electoral realignment that credits the regional base of the Republican party to a race-driven Southern Strategy.”1 Particularly, this was achieved through a racialized conservatism that united White Southern voters on the basis of open appeals to racism. As Matthew Lassiter discusses in his book The Silent Majority, the Southern strategy trope also relies on the notion of the “‘Southernization of American politics,’” where Southern racial strategies influence national politics via top-down governmental control.2 Despite acquiring an official definition in the 1960s, the Southern strategy appears throughout US political history. The “Southernization” narrative, in particular, is traceable as far back as the Civil War. However, as an investigation into three authors — W.E.B. Du Bois, Ira Katznelson, and Matthew Lassiter — writing about different time periods shows, the historical reality of the Southern strategy has never been static. Ultimately, tracing the Southern strategy’s shifting historical reality gives an insight into the way institutionalized racism functions as a political tool, mutates over time, and is not geographically bounded.

All three authors mentioned here give accounts of the Southern strategy at different periods in US history. As W.E.B. Du Bois shows in Black Reconstruction, the Southern strategy argument can be traced to the aftermath of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. Here, Du Bois argues, there was a reality to the “Southernization” argument in the way Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow was ushered in. Ira Katznelson, in When Affirmative Action Was White, points to another Southernization argument in the racialized enactment of New Deal and post-World War II social welfare programs. In this period, racism began to operate through coded, color-blind discourse at the national level. In The Silent Majority, though, Matthew Lassiter counters the Southern strategy in asserting that grassroots action, and color-blind discourse transformed Southern and national politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rather than a top-down, openly racialized method. The stakes of this discussion are not small. It is important to resist all-encompassing political narratives that might occlude the entire nation’s involvement in upholding institutionalized racism. These narratives often reinforce racist structures. As such, it is necessary to exercise caution when applying the Southern strategy as a historical reality. 

In his seminal book Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois presents a history of the end of Reconstruction that speaks to aspects of the Southern strategy as it would be defined a century later. As this period was enmired in an intense North-South political divide, much of Du Bois’s historical argument rests on the revealing of Southern political power united around racial-order and its influence on a national scale. Contextually, this was relevant to show the structural nature of racism in the US. Du Bois sought to change the perception of Reconstruction having been an unfair imposition of Northern power over the South. Instead, he argued that Reconstruction’s vital federal relief programs were ended by the wielding of Southern political power. 

A key aspect of the “Southernization” narrative is the notion of a solid Southern voting bloc united around open racism, a phenomenon Du Bois returns to throughout his historical analyses. As the Freedmen’s Bureau gained steam and offered relief to newly freed people and the poor in the post-Civil War South, it was met with violent resistance predicated on the desire for racial order. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) organized and openly fought against voting rights for Black Americans. Du Bois contends that this backlash was successful enough to actually change regional and national politics. In the election of 1872, seven Southern states overturned their Northern, “carpetbagger and scalawag” controlled leadership by “unifying the White majority and suppressing the Negro vote by intimidation or economic pressure.”3 Following 1872, top-down political revolt organized by the “White League,” a coalition of racist secret organizations like the KKK, employed methods of force to disenfranchise Black Americans.4 In doing so, according to Du Bois, the “White League” secured a “South solidified by the determination” to enforce a racial-social order — the solid South.5

Yet, Du Bois also understands the solid South as being contingent on Northern compliance. While he maintains that “[d]emocracy in the South and in the United States is hampered by the Southern attitude,” he also states that this solid South can depend upon unity with “Northern conservatism to elect a president.”6 At the end of Reconstruction, northern Republicans turned a blind eye to the White League in order to advance their corporate interests, a move that ended the social-welfare offered by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In some ways, Du Bois certainly argues that national racism is the responsibility of top-down Southern politics, and that overt racism unites White Southern voters. Yet, non-Southern politicians and sympathizers are regularly a part of his equation. Perhaps the Southern strategy was successful in ending Reconstruction, but it does not absolve the entire nation of culpability in upholding institutionalized racism.

Within the trope of the Southern strategy there is often a complex interplay between the bulwark of Southern political power, and non-Southern politicians’ willingness to accept racist policy to further their own goals. Ira Katznelson investigates this interplay in When Affirmative Action Was White. By considering how Black Americans were excluded in the social welfare programs of the New Deal and GI Bill, Katznelson gives insight into another historical period in which “Southernization” shaped national policy. With the New Deal, he argues, the southern system of Jim Crow ordered how federal relief was given to those in need. This was premised upon the South’s legislative power, which was a reality in the Democratic party of the time.7 As Katznelson writes: “The South used its legislative powers to transfer its priorities about race to Washington. Its leaders imposed them with little resistance on New Deal policies.”8 This played out in the tailoring of New Deal programs –– like relief payments to the poor and Social Security –– to systematically exclude Black Americans, especially in the South. This happened through two methods: the work category exclusion of farmworkers and maids, categories comprised mostly of Black Americans, and the local enactment of relief programs. As such, “most black Americans were left behind or left out” of a “wide array of public policies” that advanced most White Americans’ social welfare.9 This pattern of race-based exclusion continued in the post-World War II relief of the G.I. Bill. According to Katznelson, the same strategy of exercising top-down Southern political power to exclude Black Americans from federal relief programs proved successful.10 Crucially, though, this top-down strategy appealed to race in coded, color-blind language at the legislative level, and relied on more open appeals to racism in its local enactment.

While Katznelson quite intently focuses on the South’s power and its control over federal policy, it should not cloud the reality of political negotiation that took place. As he points out, non-Southern “politicians and citizens” were not “imprisoned by Jim Crow.”11 Rather, non-Southern politicians had agency in choosing to “accede to the southern system.”12 Non-Southern Democrats were more than willing to hold party lines and negotiate with their Southern counterparts for the passage of federal social welfare programs. This complicates the generic “Southernization” argument by showing that racism becomes institutional at the hands of all those in power. Rather than confronting the clearly racist motivations of Southern politicians, political expediency was chosen. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often remembered as one of the best Presidents because of these social welfare programs. But how is welfare that purposefully excludes people truly social? FDR and the Democratic party knowingly advanced these exclusionary programs to accomplish their political goals.13 Without openly racial language in the federal legislation, it was easy to assign regional culpability. “Southernization” was certainly a reality in the New Deal and Post-War social welfare programs, but it should not preclude a national culpability in advancing institutionalized racism. 

While Du Bois and Katznelson offer a typical “Southernization” argument with a small asterisk after, Matthew Lassiter, in The Silent Majority, offers a complete alternative to the Southern strategy. In fact, he argues that the Southern strategy was wholly ineffective to unite a solid Southern bloc by the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the Southern strategy takes on its official definition at this point in history, Lassiter suggests that the strategy served to divide the South into a two party system and disrupt the ostensibly solid South.14 He counters the popular belief that “the regional base of the Republican party” relied on a “race-driven Southern Strategy”15, and poses that “electoral realignment” truly occurred in this period through “suburban strategies developed in the Sunbelt South” that relied on grassroots organization.16

This suburban strategy first began as a response to Civil Rights legislation, especially to Brown v. Board of Education and busing legislation. In a moment where White students were brought to formerly segregated Black schools and Black students to White ones, the politics of “class and geographic divisions” merged as central in White families’ resistance to forced busing. This “middle-class consciousness” relied on “a social ideology of meritocratic individualism rather than racial caste…and the submergence of racial discourse beneath the color-blind politics of residential privilege.”17 In the response to forced busing in Charlotte, for example, the Concerned Parents Association “insisted that opposition to busing had nothing to do with racial prejudice,” and preached a centrist message that still advanced racist practice through coded language.18 In 1968, an appeal to “this suburban strategy of color-blind moderation and class-driven conservatism” won Nixon the presidency. However, by 1970, in an effort to neutralize George Wallace, the Nixon administration shifted to an openly racist Southern strategy to acquire a solid South in the midterm elections. This wholly failed. In South Carolina, for example the Democrats embraced a centrist approach and won the governorship, indicating the bankruptcy of the Southern strategy in holding a solid South.19 Rather, the regional convergence of Southern politics with a national, centrist approach proved more effective to maintain institutionalized racism. This centrist approach successfully “reimagined state-sponsored residential segregation as de facto ‘economic segregation,’” and allowed racial segregation to continue long beyond the reaches of Jim Crow.20

Part of the significance of Lassiter’s assertion of a suburban strategy is its complication of the often monolithic narrative of how racism is institutionalized in US politics. All three historical periods presented here speak to this phenomenon. While the particulars of the Southern strategy can be debated in terms of success, it really represents a larger argument about the way that racism operates politically. Du Bois and Katznelson, in their particular periods of investigation, clearly assert that this was done via top-down political control located in the South. While Du Bois describes the success of open appeals to White racism, Katznelson shows the beginning of a shift to color-blind discourse as most effective. Black Americans were still excluded from the New Deal and post-World War II relief through the exercise of top-down political power, but open appeals to racism don’t appear in federal legislation. This foregrounds the methods Lassiter points to as ending the ability for open racism to unite a solid South. During the 1960s, it was centrism and color-blind language that proved successful in continuing racial segregation. In Lassiter’s view, the mechanisms of institutionalized racism change over time. Just because a centrist electoral platform was successful in the South does not mean that racism disappeared. The use of color-blind language inscribed race into structures without need for the use of open appeals to racism. Crucially, here, institutionalized racism need not be geographically bounded –– it is a national issue. The changing historical reality of the Southern strategy evidences that institutionalized racism has never been an easy equation of Southern culpability. In fact, it is a foundational practice of the entire nation.

  1. Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2006), 5.
  2. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 6.
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, (Free Press, 1998), originally published as Black reconstruction (Harcourt, Brace, 1935), 684.
  4. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 684.
  5. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 686.
  6. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 706.
  7. Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, (W.W. Norton, 2005), 20.
  8. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 21.
  9. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 23.
  10. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 124.
  11. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 29.
  12. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 26.
  13. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 49.
  14. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 273.
  15. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 5.
  16. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 6.
  17. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 43.
  18. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 139.
  19. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 260.
  20. Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 305.
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