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OPINION: Reclaiming Southern Strategy 

Uprooting systemic racism must take place upon Southern ground.

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Scott Elmquist

George Floyd rests not in peace, but in power and in protest, in our nation’s most racially diverse city: Houston. Floyd’s public lynching lays bare, yet again, how racism is this nation’s political center of gravity.

Racism catapulted Donald Trump into power through bullhorn politics and white supremacist rhetoric. In this volatile movement moment, black trauma confronts unprecedented black power building across hundreds of cities and several continents. As we continue to mourn Floyd, we must stay rooted. We cannot afford to dislodge or uproot our political vantage points from broader context and history, particularly in the South.

Embarking on this work means going beyond simply confronting the distinctively Southern roots of systemic racism in this country. This requires us to amplify the organizing networks. Southerners of color, particularly black women, have always built to deliver our democracy’s salvation in the face of egregious, racial terror. In a recent Instagram post, former first lady Michelle Obama writes that to dismantle systemic racism, we must recommit ourselves to “the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.” This means reckoning with the ways anti-black racism has always distorted our political realities at the expense of black life.

In recent weeks, many journalists are rightfully lifting up how Trump is taking clear cues from GOP’s Southern Strategy, a disinformation campaign from the Richard Nixon years that exploits anti-black racial fears among white voters to consolidate GOP support across the South. While the parallels are stark, they narrow our political fields of vision into viral soundbites (“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”). As a result, we risk losing sight of how the Southern Strategy roots itself into the Lost Cause narratives that glorify the Confederacy, a regime built off the backs of enslaved peoples.

According to an April 2020 report from the Harvard Kennedy School, Southern organizers lift up racial justice by orienting work around common threads of oppression that cross gender, geographic and generational divides. From the Heart of Dixie in Birmingham, Alabama, to the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, black women organizers are reclaiming the Southern Strategy by uprooting spaces venerating their enslavement like the Lee monument.

Their organizing power has already compelled the descendants of these war criminals, like General Lee’s fourth great-nephew, the Rev. Robert W. Lee, to speak out against their family’s legacies. On June 4, Lee proclaimed: “There are members of my family that are shaking in their boots. I know Robert E. Lee is rolling in his grave and I say let him roll.”

These multiracial, multigenerational coalitions are literally reconstructing our places, spaces and times. This reckoning is at the root of what the Rev. William Barber calls the Third Reconstruction: a fusion coalition demanding a radical re-imagination of democracy that reflects the changing hue of this nation.

A reinstallation of Reconstruction will unleash the power of emancipation. It will require massive paradigm shifts from the deficit, Lost Cause narratives of the South’s extraction, humiliation and dehumanization. We must understand the South’s inherent relevance, influence and significance to shape the moral direction of the entire country. We need to carry forward North Carolina’s Moral Mondays into a Moral Movement, to respond to racial wrongs without reducing the humanity of those who may want to repent and join in solidarity.

The work of uprooting systemic racism requires unlearning and relearning how we value justice. In practice, this looks like foregrounding racial literacy and resurrecting civic highways that connect the South’s past and give direction to our country’s future. This also means financially supporting Southern movement builders to compound their organizing power, all rooted in community need. “In the South, if you are not strategic or rooted, you will not succeed here,” claims labor organizer Shannon Reaves.

The U.S. grieves for George Floyd’s death, and will continue to grieve for a long time. In his memory, we fully commit to Michelle Obama’s call to the “honest, uncomfortable work of rooting out” systemic racism. On Southern ground is the only place this nation can find a path to healing and reconciliation. Not because slavery proliferated in the South, not because Lost Cause narratives found a Southern Strategy that enflames racial terror, but because in spite of all that, it’s where Southerners of color who had the greatest reason to hate America, loved it and worked to perfect it instead.

Jackson Miller completed a master’s degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in May and is a proud native of Chesterfield County. Miller managed a state senate race in Southside Virginia in 2019. His research on Southern power building has been published in the Harvard Kennedy School Review.   

Karim Farishta completed a master’s degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in May and hails from Sugar Land, Texas. He served as a program manager in the Obama White House. He was campaign manager for Texan Sri Kulkarni’s 2018 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, executing a 15-language minority voter outreach program.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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