The Deep Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina did not contribute one single electoral vote to the re-election of Barack Obama. In fact, for most of the last three decades the Republican Party has been counting on the South for those electoral votes (and those seats in Congress) in the same way that the Democratic Party did for many decades of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. (Even though Obama claimed North Carolina back in 2008, he didn’t pick it up this time around.) I have to wonder: despite many Deep Southern voters’ current love affair with the Republican Party, were Obama’s arguments for his ideas and programs not effective enough? Do the region’s social conservatism and Bible-Belt leanings not jive with his stances on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion rights? I mean, why don’t so many people in the Deep South identify with an Ivy League-educated liberal black lawyer from Chicago? It’s all very complicated. But, maybe if we look to Twitter for the answer, we’ll figure it out . . .
On November 9, three days after the election, The Atlantic published the article “Where America’s Racist Tweets Come From” – the story was also covered by Truthdig.com and Rawstory.com – which explains that a company called Floating Sheep did a post-election study of posts on the social media tool Twitter by searching for terms related to Obama’s re-election and for simultaneous racist terms and epithets; they then used complex data-sorting formulas to “normalize” the data to create a “location quotient-inspired measure” (LQ) that could connect those tweets to where they were coming from geographically and in what density. So what did they find? You guessed it:
Alabama and Mississippi have the highest LQ measures: They have scores of 8.1 and 7.4, respectively. And the states surrounding these two core states – Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee – also have very high LQ scores and form a fairly distinctive cluster in the southeast.
I had thought that we might find answers to this political question through research or critical inquiry— but heck, let’s count racists tweets instead! Floating Sheep’s listing of the states that were sources of racists tweets show that next to Alabama’s and Mississippi’s high LQ numbers, Georgia came in a distant third, with an LQ measure of 3.6. Louisiana came in sixth with a 3.3, and South Carolina was way down the list with a 1.4. The two Heart-of-Dixie states were far and away the top ranking in this dubious scenario. Thankfully, within its brief coverage of the study, the Atlantic article did note one game-changer of a fact: the company studied tweets, not authors. So if one person was posting hateful messages on Twitter voraciously, non-stop, day and night right after the election, then that state’s LQ score would end up being higher in their study. That doesn’t make racist pronouncements any less wrong, but understanding Floating Sheep’s method does make accurate comprehension of the study more possible.
Is my chagrin about this article an attempt to deny that some people in the Deep South are racists who hate Barack Obama simply because he is not white? No, I concede completely that some people in the Deep South are racists who loathe the very idea of a black person being President of the United States. As a matter of fact, I have been personally involved in conversations with people who have used racial epithets when referring to President Obama— sometimes to agitate me, because they know that I support him. But even in the Deep South, I’m not alone.
Even though the electoral map of the Deep South has shown almost pure red since the days of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election, the popular numbers for the 2012 election warrant a look. Romney’s victories down here were not as lopsided as a quick-tongued pundit with an iPad and a big projection screen might want us to think. Obama received nearly 800,000 votes in Alabama, compared to Romney’s 1.2 million. Next door, in Mississippi, it was even closer: Romney got about 674,000 to Obama’s roughly 528,000. In South Carolina – the home of a modern conservative all-star, the very vocal Republican leader Lindsay Graham – Obama got 857,000 votes to Romney’s near 1.1 million. And finally, in Georgia, Romney won with nearly 2.1 million votes versus Obama who had nearly 1.8 million. (Source) Even if we do have some racists with Twitter accounts among us, the larger truth is that President Obama received millions of votes in these four Deep Southern states, even if he didn’t receive any electoral votes.
However, going a little deeper than what happened last month, discussing the Deep South’s history with this issue begs for a gander back at two other African-American presidential candidates: Rev. Jesse Jackson and Herman Cain.
In the Democratic primary of 1988, the Civil Rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson cleaned up in the Deep South. According to a spreadsheet sourced to the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, Jackson received over 176,000 votes in the state’s primary, compared to eventual-nominee Michael Dukakis’ vote count of just over 31,000. Twenty-four years ago, Alabama’s Democratic voters preferred a black Civil Rights activist to a white Massachusetts liberal by a ratio of almost 6-to-1. Likewise,Rev. Jackson won Georgia’s Democratic primary with 247,000 votes (to Al Gore’s 201,000 and Dukakis’ 47,000). A spreadsheet of South Carolina’s convention delegates shows Jesse Jackson winning that state with 709 delegates, compared to Gore’s 237 and Dukakis’ 2. (*Mississippi’s numbers were not available at the time I was seeking them.) (Source) These numbers assert that, in a field of several viable candidates to serve as the party’s nominee, including one native Southerner (Al Gore of Tennessee), the black candidate was far and away the Deep Southern favorite.
Even though I was a teenager who was too young to vote in 1988, I do know two things about back then: Jesse Jackson didn’t win the Democratic Party’s nomination because the rest of nation’s Democrats didn’t prefer him — were they racists? — and Twitter didn’t exist, so we can’t study a comparison.
Moving forward to the most recent primary season in 2011 and 2012, the Republican primary candidate Herman Cain, who is African American, had some support in the Deep South— for a minute. In October 2011, the Augusta Chronicle reported that Cain was leading the South Carolina primary:
The Insider-Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll of 476 registered voters likely to vote in the GOP primary gave Cain 32 percent of the vote, twice the share of Mitt Romney’s 16 percent.
Now, 32% isn’t the lion’s share that Jesse Jackson was getting from Democrats back in ’88, but Cain was running in a different party and in a different era, which makes it apples-and-oranges in some ways. However, it is important to note that in that poll Cain was up on native Southerner Newt Gingrich by a 4-to-1 margin and on Texan Rick Perry by more than 2-to-1. Gingrich had served as a US congressman (and Speaker of the House) from neighboring Georgia in the 1990s, but in this report of early polling, Herman Cain had Gingrich whooped in South Carolina.
However, Herman Cain had to drop out of the race due to a scandal involving alleged sexual harassment about six or seven weeks before the South Carolina primaries on January 21. As reported by the New York Times, Newt Gingrich end up winning in South Carolina with 40.4% of the vote— but Cain still received 1.1%, more than a month after he dropped out of the race! By the time of the Alabama and Mississippi primaries in March, Cain was gone from the scene, so we’ll never get to know how he would have fared in the land of racist tweets.
In comparing political support in the Deep South for Jesse Jackson, Herman Cain, and Barack Obama, the important factor to acknowledge is the wide expanse among the political views and leadership styles of three men. Jesse Jackson is a well-known Civil Rights activist who was working directly with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. Twenty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Jackson had amassed name recognition and credibility. By contrast, Herman Cain’s political history was a newcomer, whose source of credibility was his experience in the corporate world as a CEO, one with markedly conservative ideals on the causes of wealth and poverty . . . and on racial issues. In October 2011, the day before that poll was published in the Augusta Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune published an article titled “Herman Cain’s racial offense,” which begins:
Tea partiers are delighted that their support for Herman Cain proves they don’t hate black people. Unfortunately, judging by some of his statements, Cain doesn’t seem to like black people very much, either.
The article continues by exploring three situations when Cain is portrayed as demeaning toward African Americans. Jesse Jackson has never suffered under similar charges. Finally, we have Barack Obama, who has now won two presidential elections, both without winning in the Deep South, yet while carrying more than 90% of the black vote both times. Unlike the often-polarizing rhetorical styles of Jackson and Cain, this president thrives on a rhetoric of compromise and a rejection of polarization. If Jackson and Cain represent two extremes of the racial divide, Obama stands squarely in the middle.
At the time of Obama’s first election back in 2008, blogger Gina Macauley of Essence.com spoke with Jesse Jackson about Obama’s primary victory in South Carolina (with almost 56% of the vote) in a race that also included John Edwards, a native South Carolinian, who only received about 18%. (Source) Among interchanges between Macauley and Jackson about race in politics, the importance of the black vote, and the nature of continued inequality, this Q&A appeared as the most poignant and blunt of all:
Essence.com: Do you think that there is such a thing as a candidate being able to transcend race?
J.J: Of course not. You can’t transcend who you are. That’s very spiritual, isn’t it? The racial issue is too serious to ignore, and it is too immoral to ignore, but it is an opportunity for healing. Racial justice is the key to social justice, and that’s the key to America. America’s moral dilemma is how it relates to matters of racial justice. Racial justice precedes racial reconciliation.
Jackson does not back down in any way in his desire for issues of race to be at the forefront of our national dialogue. However, many current issues seem to surmount racial inequality in gaining the nation’s attention: the economy, the military, healthcare, gay rights, abortion rights, immigration. No matter how obvious racial issues are today, this subject doesn’t seem to draw the ire that other current hot-button issues do. We’re fighting over different stuff now.
The complexities of race and Southern politics are obvious and undeniable, but are also almost impossible to predict or summarize. There is no denying that Barack Obama’s candidacy produced a surge in black voter turnout, just as he produced a bitter response from angry white racists who wanted him to lose for that reason alone. Thankfully, angry white Southern racists don’t always get their way anymore. A Pew Research Center article, “Dissecting the 2008 Electorate,” points out these two facts about Obama’s first election: “The voter turnout rate among eligible black female voters increased 5.1 percentage points, from 63.7% in 2004 to 68.8% in 2008,” and “Blacks ages 18 to 29 increased their voter turnout rate by 8.7 percentage points, from 49.5% in 2004 to 58.2% in 2008.” These are national, not regional statistics, yet a significant portion of nation’s black population does lives in the South.
So what does all this realistically mean about the Deep South, voting habits, and racism? First, it means that some white people get scared as hell when any black person obtains any power at all, and that phenomenon has been going on for a long time in the Deep South. That fear prompted vicious responses during the abolition movement, during and after Reconstruction, and during the Civil Rights movement. This time, in the 21st century, it manifested partially as racists on Twitter.
A more in-depth look at the issues raised by the Floating Sheep study and the Atlantic article shows that, despite being surmised as “red states” by the national media, the more accurate truth of the region cannot be summed up by that political term or by a study of those racists on Twitter. The Deep Southern states cannot be reduced to Republican-dominated bastions of bigotry. The ideals and voting habits of the people of the Deep South are diverse and cannot be made succinct by omitting details and blurting out half-truths in a thousand words (or 140 characters) before moving on. Yet, in all of our complexity – and no one will deny the Deep South’s complexity – I am not sure whether it is possible come up with any truisms about the racialized politics of Deep South, not even by comparing three sets of obvious facts: Barack Obama’s electoral-college failures in 2008 and 2012, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 dominant primary victories and Herman Cain’s short-lived stint of support.
What is conspicuous in its absence, at least to me, is a discussion of the ugly truth that our nation doesn’t like to discuss: racists live everywhere, not just in Alabama and Mississippi. The Floating Sheep study points out that concentrations of racist tweets were all over the US map: North Dakota, Utah, Missouri, Minnesota. Yet, historically, because the people of the Deep South are well-known as the harbingers of slavery, who committed many, many cruel acts such as lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and who put on a series of rabidly hateful public displays during the mid-century Civil Rights movement . . . all of these realities have given leeway for many other Americans to point at the Deep South and declare, even if silently: Those people are racists . . . and we don’t do the things they do . . . so that means that we aren’t racists! And this article from the Atlantic has that tone of insinuation to it.
Many non-Southerners have purged their moral consciences on our region by creating a false them-not-us paradigm, to which they have clung in order to avoid facing their own racialized demons. The folks at Floating Sheep can count tweets until their eyes cross, but I’ll tell you what they can’t ever study: all the hypocritical, two-faced racists all over the country who walked into the voting booth last month with the same attitude as those Deep Southern racists on Twitter, but who would never glorify it on any social media site, or admit it in any poll, or even whisper it in any conversation.