Reading Chandler Davidson’s “Biracial Politics” (1972)

Situated only 350 miles west of New Orleans, Houston, Texas is arguably a Southern city, and Chandler Davidson’s 1972 book Biracial Politics: Conflict and Coalition in the Metropolitan South treats it as such. The Princeton-educated Davidson taught sociology (and related subjects) at Rice University from 1966 ’til 2003; a university press release at the time of his passing in 2021 called him “a passionate teacher and researcher of racial and ethnic politics, minority voting rights and social inequality.” Published in the early 1970s, when the movement was ongoing but waning, the bluntly titled Biracial Politics focuses on Houston’s history with racism, race relations, and associated political realities as a new era was beginning.

The book opens by examining “Interpretations of the Black Political Experience” and immediately asking, “Is our political process adequate to the task of bringing about a just society for blacks and other racial minorities?” Davidson then follows by remarking that there are three answers to that question. One will “deny that blacks have any special claim to justice.” Another says that the Civil Rights movement put black people on a path to justice. A third recognizes that “the progress of blacks in recent years is extremely uneven,” and thus, will not point to eventual justice, or any. To follow up, Davidson explains that he has used a “case study approach,” which will yield information that would not be possible through “national sampling.” He then goes on to give his reasons for focusing on Houston, “the magnolia city.” Through a detailing of the city’s history, he concludes that Houston is a “southern city” and a worthy example of a place to be studied.

What makes Houston a Southern city, Davidson explains, are factors that connect it more to the states of the old Confederacy than to the Old West: the presence of slavery followed by segregation, its proximity to the Gulf and similarities to Louisiana and Arkansas, and a significant African-American minority, which has historically been between 25% and 32%. And it this last factor will be the focus of his case study.

In chapter two, “The Organizational Weapon,” Davidson begins by elucidating one basic truth of American democracy, which is that “the organized group [is] a central feature.” We may hear slogans like “One Man, One Vote” at rallies or protests, but our political system is influenced by and handled within groups. Most obviously, those are political parties but can also be special interest groups, corporations, religious groups, voting blocs, and more. And, he adds, “There is genuine competition among them.” Thus, political power can manifest more effectively through a group, and that effectiveness is achieved through organizing. One issue that has plagued the black community in Houston, with respect to this reality, is that people who are more educated and who work in the professional classes tend to be more effective leaders. Since segregation and its associated limitations kept many black people out of educational institutions and out of the professional classes, leaders within the black community have tended to come from the less-educated and less-sophisticated working class. As a result, Davidson writes, from 1960 to 1970, most black efforts at protest or political action failed because they group lacked “long-range planning” and “solidarity.” Quoting a local black Houston activist, he shares, “The group just meets and eats.” Davidson adds in the latter portions of the chapter that there are white-led organizations that work for racial justice, but they tend to lack credibility within the black community, mainly due to their accommodationist ideas. Meanwhile, “all-Negro local organizations have demonstrated serious shortcomings.” The quandary, in the end, is to find a method of political organization and power that can work for low-income and working-class people.

What follows in chapter three is an explanation of the significant efforts made by white supremacists, wealthy ones in particular, to set up a system that works against all black people and most low-income white people. Davidson gives a brief version of the history of populism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, then breaks down the ways in which the basic American right to vote has made so complex that unsophisticated citizens have trouble navigating its tangled web. First, he gives some history of the poll tax, which was created to subvert populism. Then there are the election rules, which have employed at-large voting, place voting, and a unit system. Following those commonly known intricacies are the strategies behind drawing district lines and the rules about who can declare candidacy for elected office. About this last one, Davidson writes that an “exorbitant filing fee” for candidates had then-recently been struck down (in 1970), and furthermore, “Another obvious means of discouraging blacks from actively seeking election is harassment and intimidation of candidates and elected officials.”

In this early 1970s case study, we see that the obstacles standing in the way of black (and to some extent low-income white) political participation are multifaceted and multilayered. They are historical, complex, and embedded. So, what could be done?

Chapter four, “The Vote: How Blacks Use It,” moves in the direction of answering that question. By the time of his writing, the 1960s had come to an end, and there were emerging disagreements between older Civil Rights groups and “new militants,” which led to squabbles over control of established local organizations, including federal programs offices, in Houston. Yet, using local school board races as his example data, Davidson shows that black voter turnout was increasing. The white community was still proportionally larger, and the white turnout was larger too, but the gap was closing. Midway through the chapter, he acknowledges the ”popular myth about Negro confusion at the ballot box” and refutes the idea that black voters may show up in numbers but don’t make smart decisions with their votes. At this point in Southern history, the seismic shift in the Democratic Party was occurring, though many black voters still chose “straight ticket,” believing white liberal candidates to be a good option. Unfortunately, these white liberals often accomplished very little, so the hopes that were wrapped up in them could mean little in terms of actual progress. Despite this, Davidson reports that some “disgruntled white liberals” were unhappy with what they called “roll-off voting” in the black community. This was a term for filling in a ballot for only the top offices, like president or governor, but leaving the choices for the smaller, down-ballot offices blank. Ultimately, the fact was that black voters supported black candidates more often than they did white liberal candidates, though more white liberal candidates actually got elected. To close the chapter, he remarks that many candidates who want to appeal to black voters often do so by emphasizing racial justice rather than articulating public policy positions that could benefit the black community. What results, then, is a common presumption among whites that black voters are unsophisticated, single-issue voters who only care about race . . . when, actually, they are courted in unsophisticated ways that emphasize no other facts or factors.

Chapter five, “The Rewards,” goes into some of the positive results of Civil Rights progress and black political participation in the city. To open, Davidson points out a stark and heavy-looming reality of Southern politics: “The question of who governs – who participates and how – is in part a question of who benefits.” Why would generations of white supremacists ensure that they control the governmental process so completely? To ensure they continued to benefit. This heavily statistical chapter parses the new reality, as the old way of Jim Crow crumbled in some ways and held on in others. Invoking Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin, Davidson discusses first the difference between what the (white) people in power claim to be trying to do and what they are actually trying to do. His first take on that reality is that electing blacks or white liberals is in itself useless, if those newly elected politicians don’t accomplish anything that yields progress. What must improve, then, are incomes and job opportunities, as well as fairness in the legal system, the integration of public facilities, and equitable distribution of resources into neighborhoods and communities. Though, in Houston in 1970, there had been some minor improvements in the some of those areas, others were “failures.” One example centered around fruitless efforts to create a citizens review board that look at the conduct and policies of the police department. Near the end of the chapter, Davidson comments on public opinion related to these issues and shares that most black citizens feel like the changes have been significant but also acknowledge that progress has been slow to come. Ultimately, “many gains are counterbalanced with losses.”

Moving on from the gains, we read about another difficult matter in “In Search of White Allies.” Here, Davidson makes one truth utterly clear: “The difficulties faced by blacks both of discrimination and of the fact that they constitute a minority.” When thinking solely of race, it is basically impossible for any group to garner more than half of the vote (the proportion needed to win) by itself when that group only constitutes one-quarter to one-third of the population. Allies are needed, and coalitions must be built. Regarding this coalition-building in Houston in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we read along as a myth gets debunked. The common idea is that working-class and poor whites were the greatest antagonists of the black community, but the statistics don’t bear out that reality, and a few factors can explain the nuances. First, when looking at voting habits, it is clear that working-class and poor whites do sometimes see their socio-economic similarities to blacks clearly enough to vote in similar ways. Often enough, normal political affiliations and habits actually did/do supersede the tendency toward extremism. However, equally often the lower education level of the white working-class showed itself in the form of base ideals. Second, when look at questionnaires and other forms of public opinion research, it is vaguely apparent that middle- and upper-class whites are just smart enough not to say baldly racist things in blunt terms, but they often did/do think in that way. And that racism is evidenced by the machinations set into motion—housing patterns, political systems, private schools, etc. So, it wasn’t as simple as the upper-class white using lower-class whites to “do the dirty work.” In their ways, the upper-classes of white society did plenty of dirty work of their own . . . in their own way. Among these complexities, the black community found a weak set of allies among a small group of white liberals and anyone else who happened to see commonality in areas of public policy, sometimes even poor whites.

Particularly interesting here is a side discussion that Davidson has about common conceptions of lower-class Southerners. He writes on page 168, “Despite these rather common acts of defiance by wealthy businessmen-politicians, political cartoonists almost invariably depict the southern opponents of school desegregation as lower class.” As an example, he cites one cartoon from the LA Times in 1970, which “portrays a Neanderthal-like character in overalls and clodhoppers, with a bowl haircut, buttons missing from his suspenders, and a polka-dotted handkerchief hanging out of his rear pocket.” However, a more sinister truth belies the situation. Such a person as a cartoon like this depicts would not have the business acumen, the legal knowledge, or the financial capital to open a fully staffed “segregation academy” with viable curriculum, administrative policies, a board, bylaws, etc. No, “such a stereotype utterly fails to do justice to the truth that intransigence and even violence are encouraged at the highest levels of southern officialdom.” In a similar way that Americans living outside the South insisted upon distinct Southern-ness of racism and Jim Crow as a way to say, “That’s them, not us,” wealthier Southerners scapegoated lower-income white Southerners as the Bob Ewell types that made that belief convenient. Using assumptions about the backwardness and degradation of the Southern poor, they were easy targets— and wealthier Southerners allowed them to be. However, it still isn’t that simple. On the flip side of that coin, many middle-class Southerners may still be racists, albeit more genteel ones, but their accommodationist support of the black community’s interests constitute greater overall support of black people than the do hardline attitudes of many working-class whites, who view racial segregation as an absolute nonnegotiable.

In his next-to-last chapter, Davidson examines what it took to built a political coalition in Houston in the early 1970s. He notes early that there were historical examples of biracial cooperation in early times, but those movements fizzled quickly and were rarely taught about or discussed, so each new incarnation believed itself to be the first. Furthermore, that suppressed history disabled new groups from learning from the failures of the past. Here, we go back to the idea that poor Southern whites are the problem, a central tenet of “the folklore of the South.” The fact is that this was/is not only about race, but also about class—which means that it is about money, who has it, who gets it, who controls it. In this chapter, we see Houston compared Atlanta and New Orleans, and in these comparisons, an important feature of coalition politics comes up: liberal candidates can win when economic, rather than racial issues come to the forefront and unite the lower classes, both black and white.  One example was the issue of the poll tax, which kept lower-income whites and blacks from voting. When faced with this issue in earlier times, there was an inverse correlation between income and support—wealthier people supported the tax (something wealthier people don’t do) and the poorer people opposed it. The question is: why? The answer is: to limit the political participation of lower-class people. So, as he ends this chapter and moves into his conclusions, we read:

How should we interpret these findings? The most convincing explanation is this: White Southerners, like white Northerners, can be classified according to those economic interests. [ . . . ] As racial bigotry is distributed fairly equally between the classes, one group is about as likely as the other to support a racial liberal when economics is not at issue.

But when racial and economic liberalism are advocated by the same party or faction, strong cross-pressures develop. Racially liberal voters who are economic conservatives may find themselves appalled by the demagoguery of the conservative candidate. Racially conservative voters who are economic liberals will feel great ambivalence toward the liberal candidate. The outcome of the election will depend greatly on whether racial or economic sentiments prevail among the voters.

The final chapter is titled “Toward a New ‘Southern Strategy.” We’ve got all of this information. And Chandler advocates carefully for a biracial approach to Southern politics that puts the general economic interests of the region ahead of inflammatory rhetoric about race. He addresses the objections, including the problem he addresses at the beginning: the unsophisticated nature of the average working-class voter who has a low level of education and the difficulties of organizing them into an effective group. In his opening paragraphs, he also reminds readers that the black community has so often been let down or betrayed by white coalition-members that the trust to form an effective group was not there. Furthermore, it is hard to fund sustained and widespread political action when the money is not there to do it; groups consisting of wealthier members have donors among their ranks, while lower-income groups have to rely on small donations at best. The challenges were myriad and omnipresent in the early 1970s, but having disaffected groups working together still seemed to Chandler Davidson to be the best bet for turning things in a new direction.

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