Identity Politics: The Southern Strategy, Because “By 1968 You Can’t Say Nigger”

Featured image article titled Identity Politics is an American Tradition, and the Constitution is proof. Article caption: The writers of the Constitution organized with focus around their social group. Article written by Olivia P. Walker

“You start out in 1954 by saying, Nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites and subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But, I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, uh that we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or another you follow me cause obviously saying we want to cut this, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger, nigger, you know? So, any way you look at it race is coming in on the back burner” — Lee Atwater (1981), strategic advisor to President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush

 

 

What is Identity Politics? 

Identity politics is an American tradition. In fact, the writers of the United States Constitution organized with a focus around their social group. In other words,  identity politics has played a role in American politics since its founding.

Identity Politics Defined 

Identity politics refers to a range of political activities and strategies used by social groups with the intent to (a) establish and keep political power and to (b) redress historical grievances, imbalances of power and constitutional violations that are attributable to government action. To be clear, identity politics is an American tradition. An example of identity politics is the Southern Strategy. 

What is the Southern Strategy?

The Southern Strategy refers to a Republican electoral strategy used to strengthen political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African-Americans:

You start out in 1954 by saying, Nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites and subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But, I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, uh that we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or another you follow me cause obviously saying we want to cut this, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger, nigger, you know? So, any way you look at it race is coming in on the back burner — Lee Atwater (1981)

These are Lee Atwater’s words. He made this statement in 1981 during an interview with Alexandar Lamis.

Who is Lee Atwater? 

Lee Atwater (1951-1991) was a strategic advisor to President Ronald Reagan when he did the interview. In 2012, The Nation published the forty-two minute interview for the first time. During the interview, Lee Atwater explains how “Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves.” Click here to listen to the interview. 

Identity Politics is an American Tradition

Identity politics is an American tradition. For example, the writers of the United States Constitution organized with a focus around their social group. Meaning, identity politics played a role in American politics long before Republican’s used the Southern Strategy.  While the US Constitution established America as a system of government based on the guarantee of citizens’ individual rights, “Citizens” — at the Nation’s founding — referred to white, property holding men.  

America’s History of Identity Politics 

The writers of the US Constitution organized with a focus around their social group. Historically, America’s government has operated as a system of government based on group rights, not individual rights. That is, citizens’ rights have been based on what we are (group rights) and not individual rights based on who we are. Therefore, to redress historical imbalances of power, grievances and constitutional violations that are attributable to government action, historically marginalized groups (US citizens) engage in identity politics to assure the guarantee of their individual rights.  

Resources: Identity Politics in Action  

1. Journal Article: [Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Forces against Brown].

2. Timeline: [History of Racism and Immigration Timeline: Key Events in the Struggle for Racial Equity in the United States]. 

3. Video: [ Political Right Since the 1960’s].

4. Article: [Living the Legacy: The Women’s Rights Movement (1848-1998)].

5. Article: [Genocide and American Indian History].

6. Article: [Japanese Internment Camps].

7. Video: [Marriage Equality].

8. Journal Article: [The Devil and the One Drop Rule: Racial Categories, African Americans, and the U.S. Census].

9. Annotation: [Three-Fifths Compromise — Digital History]. 

About the Author

Olivia P. Walker is a public affairs strategist and writer. Prior to these roles, Olivia served as governance consultant for the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE). Before that, she worked as government affairs and public policy analyst for WellCare Health Plans, a Fortune 500 health insurer. Olivia holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of South Florida School of Public Affairs. In 2016, Olivia was duly initiated into Pi Alpha Alpha, the Global Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration.  She  is a member of the American Society for Public Administration and a member of the ASPA Section on Public Law and Administration

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2 Comments

  1. Indeed. Given the nature of the article, I included reliable and valid sources. It’s an uncomfortable and offensive topic. But, history is uncomfortable and offensive. As we approach the 2020 election, it’s important we’re all on the same page with regard to conceptual realities.

  2. American politics, government, laws, and legislation have been shaped by identity politics since it’s inception . Even today it shapes the way our government is run. Those who oppose the use of identity politics only do so when it benefits marginalized groups or are to ignorant or stubborn to acknowledge isit use.

Comments are closed.