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Morning Jay: In Defense of the Southern Republicans

6:00 AM, Sep 28, 2011 • By JAY COST
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3. The meaning of “civil rights” has changed. In the 1940s, a liberal on civil rights would have been in favor of anti-lynching legislation, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, federal legislation to outlaw discrimination in private establishments, and of course laws to ensure voting rights. In other words, the debate was whether and to what extent African Americans should be included in the judicial, political, and social life of the country.

But after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, those old issues were settled, and the debate shifted markedly. It transformed into a particular version of the general debate over distribution of the national wealth, and the extent to which the federal government should be involved. So, the same Republican party that had been professedly liberal on civil rights in 1944 would, twenty-eight years later, oppose school integration via busing. Why? Because the former is about civic pluralism and the latter is about federally-sponsored wealth redistribution, which – if you read the 1936 GOP platform – you'll see the party opposed from the start of the New Deal.

The problem is that the terminology did not change – thus somebody who was "liberal" on civil rights in 1944 might also be "conservative" in 1972. This is a confusion that continues to this very day, as is evidenced by the above quotation from Harris-Perry. After all, Southern whites did not "shift parties" until more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act, and the GOP never promised them that it would roll back the gains of the mid-1960s. Today, the GOP is not "the party of civil rights” (Harris-Perry's phrase) -- not because it wants to repeal the Voting Rights Act, but because it advocates welfare reform and similar measures. This is a critically important distinction, yet it is so often overlooked.

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