Ken Hare In Depth: Impact of race in politics not the same as racism

State Sen. VivianFigures stirred up a hornet's nest when she said that racism was a factor inRepublicans gaining political dominance in Alabama since President Obama tookoffice. But, of course, any public discussion of race and politics in Alabama-- or almost anywhere, for that matter -- is certain to stir strong feelings.

Race and politics cannot be separated in this state. It'sbeen that way for a long, long time, and sadly, it's likely to continue to bethat way for a long time to come.

But please note that I use the word "race," andnot the word "racism." It is indisputable that race is a huge factorin the politics of Alabama and elsewhere. But how large a role racism plays inpolitics is to a great degree something that depends upon the eye of thebeholder.

Figures, D-Mobile, is minority leader of the AlabamaSenate and a former candidate for the U.S. Senate. Since Democrats no longerhold a statewide office in Alabama and only one of seven seats in the U.S.House of Representatives, Figures is one of a handful of top elected Democratsin the state. So when she speaks, even if she says she is speaking just herpersonal opinion, her words will be taken by many as representative of thestate Democratic Party.

Figures told a gathering of Democrats that theelection and re-election of President Obama caused a backlash by whiteAlabamians that allowed the state's Republican Party to gain a supermajority inthe Alabama Legislature and take over control of every statewide electiveoffice in Alabama.

Herattributing Republican political dominance in the state to racism  drew a sharp response from state RepublicanParty Chairman Bill Armistead, who called for an apology and said the party didnot vote for its elected officials based on race. Figures, in turn,refused  to apologize and stood by herremarks.

I'llleave it to Figures and Armistead and their fellow partisans to argue over howmuch racism plays a role in politics. But when Figures suggests that Republicandominance in the state was a result of a backlash to Obama, she is ignoring apolitical shift in Alabama that began decades before Obama reached nationalprominence.

Thatshift arguably first showed up in presidential election results in Alabama asfar back as 1964, when Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater overwhelminglycarried Alabama even though he was trounced for president nationally. Alabama'sown George Wallace, running under the American Independent Party label forpresident, carried the state in 1968. Democrat Jimmy Carter, Southern born and Southern bred, carried thestate in 1976.

Butin every election since then, Republican candidates for president have easilywon in Alabama. Since 1964, the scorecard for president in Alabama would readRepublicans 11, Democrats 1, independents 1. Since 1980, it would readRepublicans 9, Democrats 0.

Andif there was supposedly such a strong backlash to Obama as president, you wouldexpect him to have captured a lower percentage of the vote in Alabama than hisDemocratic predecessors. But that's not the case in either 2008 or 2012. Inboth of those years, Obama polled 38 percent of the vote compared to JohnKerry's 36.8 percent in 2004. (The modern-day record for worst performance by aDemocrat running for president in Alabama goes to George McGovern in 1972, whenhe received just 25 percent of the vote.)

But it's not just in presidential politicsthat the shift from Democrat to Republican in Alabama can be found. Prior to2012 when the changeover statewide became total, the GOP had been making steadyinroads in state politics, with gains in both statewide and legislativeoffices. For instance, six of the past seven elections for governor have beenwon by Republicans.

FormerU.S. Rep. Glen Browder of Alabama has a unique vantage point from which to viewthis political shift. First, he is a political scientist by profession. And hehas served both in the Alabama Legislature and as secretary of state, Alabama'stop election official. And while in Congress, he was a founding member of theBlue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats.

Browderdeclined to weigh in on the debate over racism brought on by Figures' remarks.(He didn't win four elections for Congress by accident.) But he did have thisto say about the shift in politics in the state:

"Historically, all the way back to the days of slavery andextending beyond the civil rights movement, race has been 'the' driving forcein Southern politics; and our warped party politics reflected the original sinof American history.   However,  race now  is 'a' drivingforce, not 'the' driving force."

Otherfactors, he said, such as demographics, economics, religion and philosophy"now figure into our politics just as importantly or perhaps moreimportantly  as racial considerations; and the black-white divisioninevitably plays out in our party politics (where whites ally  mainly withthe Republican Party and blacks ally overwhelmingly with the DemocraticParty)."

"Actually,this is not simply an Alabama or Southern problem; it is the same 'game' aspracticed in American politics -- although much more pronounced and problematicregionally than nationally.  Inevitably, this is going to flare up as inthe current debate."

Another respectedpolitical scientist, William H. Stewart (professor emeritus at the Universityof Alabama), said of the current debate: "I don't like the term 'racism' to be used too freely. Historically, blacks (when they have been able to participate) and whiteshave mostly been in different parties.  In the beginning it was the GOPfor blacks and the Democratic Party for whites.  As blacks movedoverwhelmingly to the Democratic Party, more whites felt uncomfortable in it --not necessarily because of anti-black attitudes."

Hesaid that values increasingly adopted by the national Democratic Party"were not those which conservative whites (a majority of the Alabamapopulation) identified with."

"Idefinitely don't see this situation changing in the foreseeable future,"Stewart said.

LikeBrowder, I'll stay out of the debate over racism (as opposed to race) inpolitics for now. But I will make this point: It's difficult to see howattributing so much in politics to racism is going to help Democrats in thestate win back support from the state's white middle class. It seems to me thatsuch a focus only serves to sharpen racial divisions, not overcome them.

Likethe late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Alabamians should hope for a day"when people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the contentof their character." When it comes to politics in Alabama, too many people-- Democrats and Republicans alike -- aren't there yet.


Ken Hare was a longtimeAlabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes aregular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at