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Democrats Gain in Dixie, but Racial Divide Remains


Barack Obama hardly marched across the South like General William T. Sherman, who accepted the surrender of the Conferedate armies in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida in 1865. But he certainly made some inroads.

The Illinois Democrat failed to win a majority of White votes in any Southern state, and exit polls indicate that a deeper racial divide may persist here than in other regions.

But he won Florida. You could argue that Florida with its snowbirds and ice hockey franchises is not really “Southern,” but that doesn’t change the fact that a Northern, liberal Democrat hasn’t taken the state since FDR.

And it’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of Obama’s comfortable victory in Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. No Democrat had won that state since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

“Old Virginny is dead,” declared Gov. Tim Kaine, who helped guide Obama to victory there.

Even North Carolina, which has been reliably Republican in presidential politics since 1980, is still too close to call. And while Georgia chose Republican John McCain, Obama was more competitive in that deep South state than any Democrat since Bill Clinton who won it in 1992 and narrowly lost it in 1996.

“Look. Al Gore couldn’t win any Southern state,” says Dr. Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University and author of the book, Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000. “A NORTHERN Black man did better in Southern states than Al Gore, a child of the South.”

Ordinary Southerners can’t be faulted for feeling that something huge has happened in their region.

“It is a new day,” real estate broker Sibrina Roberts, who is Black, declared as she emerged from a Wake Forest polling place Tuesday into a cold, persistent rain after casting her vote for Obama.

When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he famously confessed to an aide: “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Unless 12 years constitutes a “long time,” Johnson’s prediction was overly pessimistic. Jimmy Carter won every Southern state but Virginia on his way to the White House in 1976, and Clinton had Southern support in his back-to-back election victories.

But they were both Southern Whites who could appeal to moderates.

Obama was never foolish enough to think he could sweep the “solid” Republican South. Like Clinton before him, he knew his best hope was to split the region.

In 1992, Clinton focused on his home state of Arkansas and running mate Gore’s Tennessee, along with Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. Clinton took most of those states in both elections, though it turns out he would have won without a single Southern electoral vote.

Obama essentially used the same strategy, only he targeted different states —Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, all of which had two things going for them: Large African-American populations and large numbers of “White migrants” from more Democrat-leaning states.

Of course, not all of these blue-state transplants voted for Obama.

Engineer Keith Hawkes moved from Obama running mate Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware to Lynchburg, Va., thinking the economy there might be stronger. A year later, he’s still looking for a job.

Hawkes, who turns 65 next month, said he voted for McCain because he thought the Republican would be better for the economy and would do more to protect his Social Security. But the White man admitted that race was also a factor.

“I personally just wasn’t ready for a Black man to lead the country,” he said.

Exit polling shows that while Whites in the rest of the nation leaned toward McCain by only a hair, two-thirds of Southern Whites backed the Arizona senator. In fact, the deeper South the state, the more overwhelming McCain’s victory among Whites, even young Whites.

But African-Americans now make up a bigger portion of the Southern electorate than they did in Johnson’s day. In 1964, Blacks accounted for 5.8 million of the 32.4 million voting-age Southerners, according to the Census Bureau. And fewer than half of Black Southerners actually cast ballots that year.

But in state after state across the region this campaign, new registrations among African-Americans have far outstripped White numbers.

Still, it’s safe to say Obama didn’t start a revolution in Dixie.

“The solid South has been cracked,” says Mayer, “but it ain’t over.”

Even so, it felt that way to many voters.

When he heard Obama was running, Johnny Jefferson, who is Black, told his daughter the Illinois senator didn’t have “a ghost of a chance.” Waving an Obama sign outside the West Tampa Convention Center Tuesday, Jefferson was never so happy to be proven wrong.

“When you see people in Georgia and Florida coming out to support a Black candidate when we were on the back of the bus and now, pretty soon, be driving the bus, that’s a good thing,” said Jefferson, 56, who was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Illinois senator’s image. “And it says that everybody’s come a long way.”

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