The controversy surrounding recent events in Jena, La., and the criminal charges against the Jena Six, stems in part from the shocking qualities of the story. Most decent people across the country look at the systemic and ugly bigotry, and wonder how these conditions can still exist in the 21st century.
Paul Krugman makes the case today that racial tensions, especially in the South, haven’t improved as much as most of us would like to believe, and in politics, race remains “one of the defining factors."
Consider voting in last year’s Congressional elections. Republicans, as President Bush conceded, received a “thumping,” with almost every major demographic group turning against them. The one big exception was Southern whites, 62 percent of whom voted Republican in House races.
And yes, Southern white exceptionalism is about race, much more than it is about moral values, religion, support for the military or other explanations sometimes offered. There’s a large statistical literature on the subject, whose conclusion is summed up by the political scientist Thomas F. Schaller in his book “Whistling Past Dixie”: “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters to depict American conservatism as a nonracial phenomenon, the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”
The national Republican Party is acutely aware of all of this — as it has been for decades — and acts accordingly. In 1980, this meant Ronald Reagan making one of his first presidential campaign appearances just outside Philadelphia, Miss., to endorse states’ rights.
In 2007, GOP leaders aren’t nearly as blatant, but they’re no more progressive, either.