An End to the Southern Strategy, But No Post-Racial America

atwater-bush.gifby David A. Love

Lee Atwater, GOP political operative and mentor of Karl Rove, was a Machiavellian conman and a purveyor of sleaze. And through the various political campaigns he ran, he not only won races, but also destroyed lives in the process.

I was reminded of all of this when I watched the recent PBS documentary on Atwater called Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. Even in the already distasteful arena of American politics, Atwater dared to go where few others had ventured. He started his career as a protégé of Sen. Strom Thurmond, someone who thrived on white supremacy and the manipulation of the race card, yet had a Black daughter and concealed his hypocrisy until his death.

Obviously, Atwater learned well from his racist mentor. The father of the modern dirty tricks school of political campaigning, Atwater helped claim victory for Congressman (later Governor) Carroll Campbell by characterizing his Jewish opponent, Max Heller, as someone who “should not be elected because he was not a Christian” and did not ‘’believe Jesus Christ has come yet.”

In addition, Atwater was the mastermind of the infamous Willie Horton ad, which was used for George Bush Sr.’s presidential bid against former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Horton ad — which played on the narrative of the menacing Black man who rapes White women, and in this case was supposedly released from prison by Dukakis— represented the ultimate in the Southern Strategy — that is, the Republican Party’s raw, unabashed appeals to White Southerners through the invocation of white-skin solidarity and fear of Black folk.

Appointed to Howard University’s board of trustees in 1989, then-Republican party chair Atwater was shown the door by Howard’s students, in a level of protest not seen on that campus since the Vietnam War. As Time

“Outraged by his appointment in January to the Howard board of trustees, more than 200 students seized the school’s main administration building in the most intense burst of campus unrest since the Viet Nam War. Hundreds of other students demonstrated outside, chanting slogans and demanding Atwater’s resignation from the board. Four days after the rebellion began, with riot police threatening to storm the building, Atwater stepped down. In a Washington Post piece…he complained that the students had distorted his record on civil rights and failed to recognize the good he could do. Wrote Atwater: ‘I had a lot to offer Howard.’

Atwater’s appointment to the board was a marriage of convenience. The R.N.C. chairman wanted better ties with the black community, and Howard President James Cheek was eager to curry favor with the new Administration…. Howard’s students, however, were not so willing to go along. Atwater’s appointment, declared an editorial in Hilltop, the campus newspaper, undermined ‘the principles this school was founded on.’”

Perhaps Atwater thought his love for Black music would get him over, but it didn’t. And all those years of destroying people for political gain, all on the backs of the children of slaves, caught up with him. He reportedly had his “coming to Jesus” moment before succumbing to a brain tumor, repented, and apologized to those he had harmed and defamed along the way. He died on March 29, 1991, his Bible still wrapped in its cellophane.

Atwater died a second time, on November 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama. And the Southern Strategy died with him. As the party known for little else than “starting wars and jacking votes,” as comedian David Alan Grier recently noted, the G.O.P. could no longer depend on racism for their bread and butter.

Try as the McCain-Palin ticket did to stoke the flames of racial anger and resentment by conjuring up the image of Obama as the uppity communist Muslim terrorist with a radical Black pastor, the Southern Strategy made its last stand in national politics. Obama carried nearly every demographic across race, age, gender and income, and his opponents soon learned that there was not enough racism in the country to carry them to victory. They soon learned that their time-tested strategy had become their albatross.

Now, the Republicans are relegated to the South — an extremist backwater party of white heterosexual Christian fundamentalism, cultural intolerance, and political irrelevance. They embrace xenophobia, islamophobia, and homophobia as America becomes a browner, more diverse nation. They uphold the plutocratic interests of free market capitalism at a time when the public demands greater government intervention in the economy, as a check against corporate excess and upward wealth redistribution.
But hold it, wait a minute: let’s not lull ourselves into thinking that all is well, and that we have somehow waved a magic wand to bring us into a post-racial America. The election of the first Black president has sparked over 200 hate-related incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And while the president-elect is African American, Black men are still the most marginalized, at-risk segment of the population. They are funneled into a cradle-to-prison pipeline, and while they are overrepresented among the clients of social service agencies, rarely are they sought for leadership positions in the nation’s nonprofit organizations.

david.jpgNevertheless, recent developments are promising. Now is the time to look for leadership in new places, and from new faces. And while we’re at it, perhaps we can reject the Atwaters of the world who seek to defile the political discourse, detract from the real issues and divide us from each other. Southern Strategy, rest in peace, and may we never see you again.

David A. Love Editorial Board member, David A. Love, JD, is a lawyer and journalist based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is

This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.

Earlier articles by David:


  1. Dr. Jim Hamilton says

    I totally agree with the statements made by David Love, But i must bring forth the truth regarding our own people.

    As a young black man growing up in Georgia, during the marches of MLK i am reminded of statements made by many blacks that MLK was a troublemaker. Now this was in the 60’s ! Not only was this a factor, as schools integrated many problems were not caused by racist white people. We had teachers that left us in the hands of a white school system to which we were not prepared to deal with and many good students failed because the only mentors that we had known simply disappeared. Or the ones that remain couldn’t let go of the past and put the students first.

    What am i saying ! ( opportunity ). We as a people have let ourselves and our own people suffer for many years. Simply because we refuse to except our own failures. Doors have been opened for many years and we have refuse to step though them, our children suffer from lack of knowledge because we find reason to not step up to the plate. The blame game is our biggest issue ! Let’s blame everybody else.

    Let me just name a few things that i am speaking of. I didn’t get an education, because i decided not go to school ! I went to jail because i hijacked someone’s car or robbed,hit a girl,sold drugs, and the list goes on.. Where and when does the black leaders, parents & grandparents finally say enough is enough.

    Many of us have done the right things in life only to be looked upon as traitors of our race. Obama became president because he did the right things in his life. Believe me! If you could sit down with him one on one, he would probably tell you the hardest part was to get past our people. Do we really believe that we couldn’t have had a black president before ? Nothing could be farther from the truth! We have many black colleges that have been around for over 50 years. If one race was so powerful against another this would never have taken place. We need to get together and say no more crime in our neighborhoods, we aren’t going to wait for the white man to lock you up ! We’re going to put you away!

    Obama is not God ! and he can’t save us if we don’t decide to help him by taking control of ourselves and our children. In order to start healing we must first admit there is a problem. until then it doesn’t matter who becomes president or governor. Last but not least, i moved from Ga in the 70’s and never returned until 2002 ! The resistant that i met was not from the white folks ! Needless to say we didn’t stay there long. When i saw the polls and realized that Obama didn’t control that state, i was surprised at all. We need leaders to stand up and say enough is enough, in sports and on the streets, we can’t even get along in church. can we blame the white man for that too ? I don’t think so !!

    The white man sees what we refuse to look at and they use it against us, to divide is to ???? Now i know there’s going to be many that’s going to disagree with me, but when crime knocks on your door and it’s someone you have known all of you life. What are you going to say then ? Well the white man made him or her do this.. We talk about George Bush ! How many of us have ever be president of anything in our lives ? Many death in 9 / 11 were black people, that had great jobs and paid their dues. But blame him for starting a war to keep something like this from happening again. All of this mess that just happened have nothing to do with George Bush ! This all began in the 80’s and we wouldn’t go out and vote for change.

    I pray that Obama can get somethings done, not for our people ( for himself), because the very people that went out to vote will be the first to talk about him like a dog.

    • shirley says

      I stand with you Dr. Hamilton (a black woman) and you are so right on a number of things. It really and truly upsets me when someone black stands up and asks President-elect Obama “what are you going to do about all the crime in the black neighborhoods?”

      Just who do they think this man is? He can only do so much and at this point he is about to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. The one thing that he certainly cannot do, is stand at the door of each and every black family to see to it
      they don’t kill each other…..give me a break! He has got to cross every T, dot every I and will literally be under a microscope for everything he does as well as trying to secure himself and his family from those who wish to assasinate him…my God! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!! THE SPIRIT OF GOD HAS TO MAN THIS!!

  2. Nick says

    I agree – for the republicans to win again, they’re going to have to abandon the south. Though, please don’t generalize the south – I’ve lived in downtown Atlanta & Austin (both of which are implant southern residents). There are many more towns full of great people!

    Much love

  3. Susan says

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. Barack Obama’s election has brought us to the brink of truly a new day. I’m sorry only in regard to the mountain he must climb due to the huge problems he will have dumped on him. That being said, I want to be a part of helping him achieve his potential and by doing that I think I’ll achieve mine!
    Here’s to a new day for all!

    PS – Oh boy, I wish so much we could get Georgia too!

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