Will White Voters in the Black Belt Ever Get Out of Their Own Way?

Fifty years after Freedom Summer, a report by former NAACP President Ben Jealous says this question matters because cross-racial coalitions will be one key to finally bringing political equality to the South. 

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Former NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous on Oct. 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the area of the American South informally known as the Black Belt, cross-racial political coalitions should form naturally. After all, the poverty rate in the region hovers around 16.5 percent and cuts across racial lines. Plus, polling has shown that white Southerners hold populist views similar to those of their black neighbors—the majority agreeing that the government should spend more on health, education and improving people’s standard of living.

But according to “True South: Voters of Color in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer,” a report released Monday that focuses on voting in those Black Belt states where politics is still defined by racial polarization (meaning voters and candidates of color are largely locked out of any meaningful participation), that’s not the case.

Its author, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says that’s because “white conservative leaders have systemically undermined these coalitions by playing up racially divisive wedge issues” and “the strategy of divide and conquer has worked.” Thus, he writes in the report, “In recent years, candidates in the Black Belt have consistently voted differently than voters of color, even if this has meant voting against their economic self-interest.”

Repairing this disconnect—and building coalitions based on shared interests—is part of what the report concludes is “the key to transformative political power” in the region. Other lessons, which it links to those that civil rights activists learned during 1964’s Freedom Summer: Voter registration can overcome massive vote suppression. And a successful movement is “a marathon, not a sprint.”

The report’s findings identify hope for coalition building thanks to demographic changes in the region, rising frustration with the extreme right wing, the data that shows young voters are less racist, and the possibility that white women will act on their alienation by conservative policies and candidates.

Even if white voters don’t budge, “True South concludes, there’s still the possibility of change when it comes to race and political representation. “Registering just 30 percent of unregistered black voters would yield enough new voters to upset the balance of power in North Carolina and Virginia in presidential or midterm election year,” says Jealous. This, he predicts, “could allow voters of color to elect a candidate of their choice, and, at a minimum, affect the political decisions of all candidates in the race.”

Jenée Desmond-Harris is associate editor of features at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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