Wrong on Race

Tomorrow, I’ll be turning in Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, so I want to fulfill my long-standing vow to do a write-up about it.

Let me start with four personal anecdotes. When I was at DePauw University, I took an Intro to Poli Sci class, which was taught by a very liberal professor. He wasn’t a part of the New Left, mind you, for he said in the 1970’s that anti-war protesters belonged in prison. Plus, he was a major critic of postmodernism. Essentially, he was your run-of-the-mill, New Deal Democrat, who also supported civil rights for African-Americans.

He basically told us that the Republican Party was racist. He said that most Republicans voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (including Bob Dole, who was running for President at the time), while most Democrats voted for it. He also stated that the Democrats of the South became Republicans because of the GOP’s support for “states’ rights,” which was code for allowing segregation in the South. He called this the “Southern strategy,” in which the GOP used “code-words” to win the racist Southern states.

When I informed him that Bob Dole actually voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told me that this little detail didn’t matter, since most Republicans voted against it. In retrospect, I wish I had fought him a little harder on that point. After all, if a major figure of the GOP such as its candidate for President voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then why should we be calling the party “racist”? Moreover, I checked the Congressional Record and found that a lot of Democrats voted against it. But he’d probably respond that those were Southern Democrats, who later became Republicans. I just couldn’t win!

Now let’s fast forward to my Jewish Theological Seminary years. I was in a class with a Columbia student, and I somehow let it slip that I was a Republican. He then launched into a major tirade. “Why are you against black people? Why are you against gay people?,” he asked. I didn’t fight him, since I was trying to be a nice person. But, in retrospect, I wish I fought back (rhetorically, of course).

In New York, I frequently went out to eat with people from my Asperger’s group. One of them was a provocative, die-hard Democrat, and he said on a few occasions, “You know, Republicans say they’re not racist, but they use code-words for racist ideas. What do you think their talk about ‘welfare queens’ and crime is all about?” I didn’t argue with him, but I don’t see how such rhetoric is inherently racist. There were white people who plundered the welfare system as well, plus everyone should be concerned about crime, regardless of what their race is. Also, who are the ones injecting race into that kind of conversation? Not the Republicans, let me tell you, but the Democrats, who like to see racism where it doesn’t exist.

Now let’s rewind to my Harvard years. I was taking a class on early American history, and we were having a discussion on whether Thomas Jefferson was a racist. A conservative student said that we shouldn’t judge Jefferson according to modern standards, whereas a liberal one was pointing out that there were abolitionists in Jefferson’s time, and Tom was not among them. The liberal student’s good point was pretty much ignored, as people focused instead on her overall argument: that the founding fathers were racist bigots. I sided with the conservative student, as did most of the class (surprisingly, since this was liberal Harvard). But, as the years went by, I often thought about that whole incident: maybe I was wrong. Jefferson could have been an abolitionist, but he wasn’t one. So why is criticizing Jefferson on race an act of judging him by modern standards? His own time offered him an anti-slavery position, and he rejected it.

Now onto Bartlett’s book! His argument is basically that the Democratic Party has a racist past. Thomas Jefferson was a racist, who beat his slaves and freed only a few of them at his death. And he wasn’t just acting according to the racist mindset of his time either, for a lot of slave-holders freed all of their slaves when they died. Plus, George Washington had a high view of African-Americans because he had fought beside them in the American Revolution. According to Bartlett, Jefferson was behind his own time on the race issue.

Democrat Andrew Johnson was a racist who tried to hinder the “radical Republicans” from bringing racial equality to the South. For some reason, the liberal history books I used in school always sided with Johnson. Go figure! And one of Johnson’s biggest defenders was Professor Woodrow Wilson, who, as President, instituted segregation throughout the federal government.

Franklin Roosevelt frequently used the “N-word,” barred blacks from Warm Springs (notwithstanding what the movie Warm Springs depicts), appointed a KKK member to the Supreme Court, and refused to support an anti-lynching law. His New Deal hurt blacks in a number of ways. The minimum wage deprived blacks of jobs, since they could no longer compete with whites by offering to work for lower wages. Regardless of what’s on Roots: The Next Generation, the New Deal farm policy basically screwed black farmers, for “the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) only paid those who owned the land, thus excluding sharecroppers and tenant farmers” (sorry, Brock Peters!) (114). The Tennessee Valley Authority refused to hire blacks even as it forced black farmers off of their land. And the Federal Housing Administration created ghettos because it favored “single family homes in racially homogeneous neighborhoods,” while depriving inner-city areas of housing loans (115).

As a Senator in the 1950’s, John F. Kennedy “denied that Congress had any role to play in implementing the Brown decision, voted against bringing the 1957 civil rights bill to a vote in the Senate, and supported amendments that weakened its effectiveness” (160-161). And guess who was a big figure in weakening the 1957 civil rights bill? Lyndon Johnson! Kennedy didn’t really do anything about civil rights until 1963, when it was politically convenient.

While Bartlett does not view the Republican Party as saintly, he thinks it’s gotten a worse rap than it deserves. Republican Theodore Roosevelt appointed a lot of African-Americans to government posts. Support for an anti-lynching law was a feature of the Republican platform for decades. In 1964, in the House of Representatives, almost as many Republicans as Democrats voted for the Civil Rights bill (138 Republicans, and 152 Democrats). And Richard Nixon actually added teeth to the Brown decision, for he “cut off federal aid to five Southern school districts that refused to integrate” (174).

Bartlett also dismisses the “Southern strategy” as a myth. According to him, the South became Republican because of its urbanization and increasing wealth, not on account of the GOP being racist. I remember encountering the same argument in Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Majority.

But Bartlett’s book is not exactly “Republicans good, Democrats bad,” for he lavishes praise on Harry Truman, who supported civil rights when it was a political liability for him to do so. And, while I like the book because it can silence liberal Democratic self-righteousness on the race issue, Bartlett has a broader agenda than arguing that his party’s better. He encourages the GOP to take the moral high ground on race, specifically by supporting reparations for African-Americans. As far as Bartlett is concerned, Republicans need to start reaching out to a wider variety of people, who are becoming more and more receptive to Republican ideas.

I hope you can see by my summary that I really enjoyed this book! I get a perverse sense of pleasure whenever the sacred name of Franklin Roosevelt is dragged through the mud (which probably isn’t very Christian of me!). But I want to make two points about the book, one of them thoughtful, and the other critical.

First of all, in reading this book, I had to undergo a dramatic paradigm shift. In this day-and-age, it’s not politically-correct to be a racist. Politicians who make a comment that can be remotely construed as bigoted have to apologize lest they jeopardize their political careers. But the time that Bartlett describes was quite different: in those days, people had to apologize for not being racist. The Democrats wanted to hold on to their Southern support, after all! So when the racist politician Tom Watson accused Woodrow Wilson of sending a letter of condolence to Booker T. Washington, “Wilson’s campaign vehemently denied that he had done such a thing” (98). Those were different times, it appears!

Second, while Bartlett does well to offer a nuanced picture of the political parties and race, elements of his book indicate that the reality was even more complex than he presents it. For example, he doesn’t really address the anti-slavery things that Jefferson did, such as Jefferson’s criticism of slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Bartlett just says that the big picture indicates Jefferson was pro-slavery.

Bartlett also pooh-poohs the defense of FDR that says Roosevelt only backed off from an anti-lynching law because he wanted Southern support for the New Deal. He says, “The idea that Southern Democrats would block legislation widely viewed as essential for economic recovery in the middle of the Great Depression just to protest Roosevelt’s support for an antilynching bill is ridiculous” (128). Yet, he says earlier that Southern Democrats “were not always inclined to support the New Deal” (57). Which is it? The reality was probably complex, since there were many Southern racists who were otherwise progressive on politics and economics (as Bartlett documents). But there was a Southern conservative element as well.

Bartlett calls the Southern strategy a myth, which implies that Nixon didn’t try to win the South through racist code-words. Yet, he quotes Nixon as saying in January 1970, “I don’t give a damn about the Southern strategy–I care a great deal about decent education” (175). Nixon is saying that he’ll support integration regardless of the Southern strategy. Why would he say that, if the Southern strategy was a sheer myth and Nixon wasn’t applying it (on some level)?

Whatever its flaws, Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race knocks down a lot of liberal myths, for which I’m exceedingly grateful. I’ll refer to it the next time a liberal lectures me about Republicans being racists!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I canโ€™t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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24 Responses to Wrong on Race

  1. Anonymous says:

    A very good post. I would be interested in the bibliography and endnotes…it just goes to show that all of history is subject to investigation. Mom


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Mom! I’m sure you can get it on Amazon for a good price. It has lots of endnotes and bibliography, and he uses a lot of primary sources.


  3. Anonymous says:


    I’m still unclear on what is racism?

    “There were white people who plundered the welfare system as well”–more than we’d like to admit. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Have you read The Bell Curve? If not, it is worth reading in its entirety; 99% of the people who dismiss it haven’t read it.

    I’m a Democrat, but not some ideologue. I just think it presents the most robust economic vision (right now); I’m less interested in racial issues.



  4. Izgad says:

    The problem I have with tagging people from the past, such as the founding fathers, as racists is that, as a historian, I see it as a trap issue. It in no way helps us understand them. All that it does is cloak us in our own issues and beliefs.
    Yes Thomas Jefferson was outside of the liberal paradigm. What we need to do is open up Aristotle and other pre-modern political thinkers and try to see things from Jefferson’s point of view. We do not have to agree with Jefferson; we just have to understand him.


  5. Looney says:

    Certainly it is good to put an end to the old meta-narratives. I do wonder a bit whether it is too late.


  6. James Pate says:

    Hello everyone! Thanks for your responses.


    I’ve heard of the Bell Curve, but I have not read it. I do, however, have Dinesh D’ Sousa’s End of Racism, which talks about IQ and race.

    What is racism? I’d define it as disliking people because of their race, or discriminating against them on account of their race. It’s judging people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And Wrong on Race presents all sorts of examples of that: dehumanizing people just because they have a different skin color.


    You make a good point. And Jefferon’s view on the subject was complex. On the one hand, you have a lot of what Bartlett talks about–his pro-slavery activity. And he also writes a description of African-Americans, based on his observation and history. For example, he says that Roman slaves showed evidence of cultural advancement, which he did not see in African-Americans. On the other hand, he also wrote against slavery.


    That’s true. Yet what’s strange is that Bartlett embraces at least one prominent metanarrative on race, for he defends reparations. But he does challenge the metanarrative that the Republican Party is racist.


  7. Anonymous says:

    According to most scholars of which I have been exposed in the field of African-American or Africana Studies, as well as other multicultural studies, prejudice is something almost everyone feels and/or experiences at one time or another, and is based upon dislike of another because of, among other things, skin color (but also religion, background, ethnic group, gender, etc.). Racism, however, carries the connotation that one racial group is more powerful than another group and practices discrimination against that group. So, (at least in this country, but in Europe, as well) because Anglo-Americans have historically held more power than African-Americans (political, monetary, access) they are considered to be guilty of “racism”, whether covert or overt. African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, etc. can be prejudiced against Anglo-Americans and/or each other, but are not considered racist unless one group has power over the lives of the other(s). Mom


  8. James Pate says:

    But what’s the point of the distinction? White guilt? Saying that minorities are not wrong to hate others because of their race?

    Personally, I think that racism is racial prejudice, and institutionalized racism is the proper term for racial prejudice enforced by people in power.


  9. Anonymous says:

    That is how I view prejudice due to racial group, too–as racism. My definition came from the rhetoric, both written and spoken, of my specialty area, and “institutionalized racism” was a very large umbrella…


  10. Looney says:

    James, it is shocking to find out I have a fan! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Racism (as well as multi-cultural cooperation) is usually discussed in the framework of the opinions of race A towards race B. What is afflicting the US is different. It is the opinion that race B has about the opinion of race A towards race B. To make it specific, it isn’t the Whites attitude towards the Blacks that counts, but rather the opinion that Blacks hold regarding the opinion of Whites, both currently and in their view regarding historical wrongs committed by Whites.


  11. Izgad says:

    James’ Mom

    The fact that one can excuse racial minorities from the charge of racism is simply a technical way to dance around the issue. Just as the grandfather clause was a way to make it that only blacks had to take literacy tests.
    I would argue that it is the other way around. That a dominant culture should be a granted a special status because it they form the foundation for society. Members of the dominant culture should be given greater levels of tolerance while members of minority cultures should have to put up with the eccentricities of the dominant culture and be grateful that they are tolerated at all.
    Just so you should know, I am Jewish so I am not trying to argue for special privileges for me.


  12. Anonymous says:

    I hope that this doesn’t provoke any ire, but is it racist to observe (I don’t know if I’m correct!) that a higher percentage of African Americans (than Anglos) are extremely athetic?

    In other words, is making a positive observation racist?

    I’ve sometimes heard that making this observation implies that there is a mental gap–but that seems like a dishonest attempt to put words in my mouth (as well as being a non-sequitor).

    “African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, etc. can be prejudiced against Anglo-Americans and/or each other, but are not considered racist unless one group has power over the lives of the other(s).” This is an interesting point.

    In the poorer parts of Los Angeles many people from Asian backgrounds, esp. from Vietnam, China, and Korea, really look down on most of the black community. I went to college and heard plenty of confessions about their disgust. But because they were first or second generation immagrants, they didn’t have the political power (representation on school boards, affirmative action, etc…). Do you think this is not racism?



  13. James Pate says:

    Actually, Izgad, haven’t you gotten heat on your own blog over that position?


  14. James Pate says:

    This is kind of an indirect answer to your question, Jake.

    Basically, I think people should be judged on merit. If that means that more African-Americans are in sports than white Americans, so be it, as long as both have some chance to prove themselves. And I’d say the same thing about IQ. If a black person came into James the employer and was looking for a job, I wouldn’t say, “Well, I can’t hire you, because statistically your race doesn’t do as well on IQ tests.” I think each person should be evaluated on an individual basis.


  15. James Pate says:

    That’s something to think about, Looney. I still think that racism exists, though. Are you saying that minorities are the ones who have identified and attached a label to it?


  16. Izgad says:

    Yes I have.
    Here is the post.
    Thank you for reminding me about it.


  17. James Pate says:

    I mean “came to James the employer.” Pardon!


  18. Looney says:

    I think that race is a complex, multi-faceted thing which exists and is inescapable. It includes observing average properties of races which show up in our subconscious racial profiling. Sometimes it means identifying honorable things in the competing culture.

    Then there is racial animosity, which is usually what we associate with racism. Up to this point, we are talking only of race A’s attitude towards race B.

    The third category is the racial victim mindset, which is what afflicts the Blacks in the US: “I am not successful because I am a victim.” This is now all about race B’s beliefs about how they are/were/will be treated by race A. Michelle Obama gave the flip side of this by claiming that the first time she had been proud of her country is when her husband was nominated to be president.


  19. Anonymous says:

    I’m not saying I totally agree with the assertion that only the powerful group can be guilty of racsim. I am only repeating a particular thesis articulated during both my undergrad and graduate years by professors and scholars in the field–a long time ago, and far, far away. As I was, at that time, the only person considered to be “white” majoring in Africana Studies (then, African American Studies)at my university, and one of the few “white” women in that relatively new and defined field overall, I learned very quickly that I could define a position without absolutely adhering to it. Academic survival was, let’s say, a bit tenuous at times.
    On a personal level, I do feel it is absolutely possible for any person to be racist and perform racist acts, just as I agree that in any culture, there will be one that is dominant. Such is the way of things. My husband is Hispanic, and, when we travel, I find it racist for me to be referred to by Hispanics as a “gringa” (I am usually in the minority group at those times, but that really is beside the point). Hispanics are certainly not the “dominant culture” in America at this point, but using such a term denigrates me as a person of Anglo descent; therefore, it is a racist term. I don’t feel it is “reverse racism”. I feel it is racism, period. James’ Mom


  20. Pascalian Awakenings says:

    Wow…this is fascinating. I am Hispanic, and I think people of any race can be racist. I don’t think you have to be in power to be racist.

    James’ mom…it would be interesting to hear more of your experiences in school. Do you have your own blog?

    James, do you recommend D’Souza?


  21. James Pate says:

    I haven’t read him yet, Yvette, but End of Racism appears to be an in-depth book.


  22. Anonymous says:

    “Not the Republicans, let me tell you, but the Democrats, who like to see racism where it doesn’t exist.”

    Oh the irony of not writing “some Democrats.” Most of the Democrats I know get irritated with race talk.

    The problem might be that a fairly small percentage of Republicans and Democrats are vocal on these issues. Let’s say 25% of Republicans are “racist” and 25% of Democrats are convinced that the entire Republican party is racist. That’s my suspicion; politicking is mostly about impugning the other party.



  23. James Pate says:

    Well, there were the racists for voted for Hillary–the ones who said they didn’t want Obama because he’s black. So you may have a point, Jake–I can’t stereotype completely.


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