Democracy in the South

Democracy in the South

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, pp. 17-18

Like an old Chinese proverb coming south for the winter, one side of democracy in the American South today shows troubling, even treacherous signs of crisis, and on the other side are rare moments for important opportunities. This contrast is, of course a part of the ironic history of political participation in the South which has delivered the region from the land of segregation of thirty years ago to being home for most of the nation’s registered black voters today. It is that essential characteristic of a region that can encompass in one year more violations of the voting rights of its minority citizens than any other while electing more minority officials than all others.

The dangers to democracy which haunt the South today are both immediate and far-reaching. The region’s population growth over the last ten years presents real obstacles to maintaining the voting strength of minority citizens beyond the local level. Most of the growth, for example, has been in suburban Congressional and legislative districts where minorities are a small part of the population and where incumbent voting records often show indifference or even hostility to the interest of black and Hispanic citizens. Racial bloc voting continues throughout the region, fencing out minority voters from any substantial influence in presidential elections. And Southern state officials–often elected with the support of minority voters–appear today as adamant in their opposition to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as they were decades ago. (Witness the never-ending oppositions of state officials to a fair redistricting of the Arkansas legislature and the judicial districts in seven Southern states.)

Other signs of crisis are no less troubling. In three Southern states during the last year, whites claimed “reverse discrimination” in federal courts as they invoked the Voting Rights Act to promote their own political rights, apparently oblivious of the need to show that they had been the victims of a history of racial discrimination in voting and in society. In 1989, a state court judge in Georgia dismissed local criminal indictments because of jury discrimination–not enough whites were on the jury, he claimed. And in South Carolina a public restaurant openly defied the provisions of the federal public accommodations law, apparently on the belief that those laws were not going to be enforced any longer.

These peculiar events took place within the backdrop of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions on “race-based remedies.” Holding that efforts to assist minority contractors by the City of Richmond were unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court stated: “Classifications based on race carry a danger of stigmatic harm. Unless they are strictly reserved . . . they may in fact promote notions of racial inferiority and lead to a politics of racial hostility.”

The Court’s reference to a “politics of racial hostility” reflects the language used by opponents of renewal of the Voting Rights Act in the Congressional debates in 1982: “All too often the task of racial classifications in and of itself has resulted in social turmoil…[and]…the proposed changes in Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] will inevitably ‘compel the worst tendencies towards race-based allegiances and divisions.'”

These similarities are more than linguistic: the fundamental rationale undergirding the Supreme Court’s ruling against minority contracting–and affirmative action in employment in its other recent cases–applies to all remedies for racial discrimination, including the creation of majority black districts in voting cases. Increasingly, race-based remedies are suspect in the federal courts no matter what they’re aimed to correct.

These signs of the times are serious indicators of dangers amid both our folkways and stateways. When the city council of Richmond, Virginia–the old seat of the Confederacy–is frustrated by the U.S. Supreme Court–the authors of legal equality in the twentieth century–in an attempt to remove the vestiges of race discrimination, we should realize that no longer will traditional institutions defend and expand opportunity for all in the future. We must take seriously the jeopardy that can befall both the letter and the spirit of democracy in the South from both old friends and old foes.

Nonetheless, the South is poised to deliver another set of historic advances. With an expected gain of ten Congressional seats in Southern states after the 1990 Census, minority voters have a chance to increase their strength through the creation of additional Congressional districts with a majority of black and Hispanic voters. The legal movement for enforcing the federal Voting Rights Act is continuing to remove old and new barriers to full political participation, and the numbers of black, Hispanic, and white officials elected by the votes of minority citizens continue

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to enlarge. It was not, for instance, a change of heart, but a change in the voters of Richmond that moved the city council to embrace local legislation promoting minority contracting.

Of course, only one of these contrasting signs will become the signal feature of the South’s future–depending upon what Southerners of goodwill do now and in the future. As in the past, these times call for perseverance with those enterprises that have worked and experimentation with others that promise new results in promoting political participation. It is a time for redoubling and improving upon current, effective work, for reinforcing the public understanding of the necessity for such work, and for boldly searching for new ways to further democracy for all.

In this spirit the Southern Regional Council has a time-honored place as an institution which believes in, and whose work enlarges, the promise of democracy in the American South. More than any other private institution in the region during the twentieth century, the Council has been able to bring both vigilance and innovation to the challenge of expanding democracy. These qualities, hopefully, will also be evident in the strategies and activities which both the Council and other Southerners engage over the next few years for enlarging democracy in this region we stubbornly call home.

Steve Suitts, a native of Alabama, served as executive director of the Southern Regional Council from 1977 to 1995. He wrote the following essay which appeared in Southern Changes in June of 1990.