Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lassiter - The Silent Majority

Lassiter, Matthew D. The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

The "Silent Majority" (Nixon's term) of the south represents not the direct descendants of racist segregationists but rather the coalescing of moderate suburbanites (neither racist segregationists nor anti-racist segregationists) under a class-based, rather than a race-based, perception of the world.

Middle class suburbanites opposed court-ordered busing to desegregate schools because they believed they had earned the right, through individualist achievement/merit, to send their children to the best schools. Similarly, they felt that they had the right to live in a neighborhood of their choosing, that reflected their achievements. Naturally, this implied that they would live in a white neighborhood; skin color became a sign not of racial inferiority but of class inferiority.

Nitty Gritty
Lassiter is complicating the notion that the political leanings of the south coalesced over residual racism. Rather, they were absorbed by the Republican party, first by Nixon, because the Republican party's anti-government stance appealed to their individualist perception that they would be happiest if they were, and that they deserved to be, left alone.

White-collar families claimed a "color-blind" innocence, insisted on consumer rights, and denied that residential segregation was the outcome of structural racism.

"During the decades after World War II, the metropolitan Sunbelt replaced the rural Black Belt as the center of political power in the South, and a two-party system dominated by the interests of large corporations and the priorities of white-collar suburbs supplanted the traditional culture of white supremacy that governed the Jim Crow era." p.2

Concurrently, the ascendence of the metropolitan Sunbelt resulted in both the fading of southern distinctiveness (both political and cultural) as well as the collapse of the New Deal order - as the south suburbanized, so too did America as a whole, and thus so too did American politics.

Lassiter refutes the traditional argument that the conservative shift in America was the result of a top-down Southern Strategy launched by the Republicans in order to exploit white backlash against the Civil Rights movement. As Lassiter notes, none of the white backlash political movements actually worked: Wallace, State's Rights Party, and even Barry Goldwater. Lassiter moves the arena of focus from the Deep South slightly north to the Sunbelt South.

Tale of Two Cities
Atlanta: unequal school system with concentration of poor black students. Why? Atlanta made only token efforts to desegregate, annexed white suburbs (thus cutting black voting power), allowed upwardly mobile blacks to move into white neighborhoods which chased lower-class whites out of the city,

Charlotte: one of most integrated public school systems in country. Why? Initially, looked like Atlanta as blacks were pushed into subsidized housing area. But because the school system was county-wide, and not city, and because the state laws mandated automatic annexation of dense suburbs, the Charlotte district remained diverse. Blue-collar white parents were thus put in a position to support county-wide desegration because they were on the wrong side of white-collar suburban parents' efforts to boycott mandatory busing.

Lassiter builds explicitly off of Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier - he emphasizes the importance of federal funding in highways as well as low-interest mortgages and tax deductions in forming a white suburb, while urban housing policies led to a black ghetto.

Reading this alongside Wilentz's "Age of Reagan," I can't help but think this is a useful prequel to Wilentz's period. As Wilentz himself notes, if not for Watergate, his book might have been titled the Age of Nixon.

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