Friday, November 21, 2008

English Only as a Test Case for Claims of a Competitive and Growing "New South"

Chris Kromm raises some important arguments against the northeast-dominated corporate media's spin on election results in the South.  We should not deny the possibility that states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida represent a significant, if not sustained sea change in conventional interpretations of the conservative, Republican leanings of this region.  And besides, the fickle media elite may just be in denial of their own embeddedness with Bush Republicans during most of the first decade of the 21st Century.

Kromm does not really confront the deepest red southern states (like Tennessee; he only touches on Alabama) in his post.  Despite Kromm's inattentiveness to Tennessee, it is in places like Nashville (even more so than Memphis, which fits into the blue swath of counties that line up south down the Mississippi River to Vicksburg and Jackson, forming the end of "majority-minority" counties that stretch across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia) where the claims of the competitiveness of liberal ideas will be tested, and right soon.

Metro Nashville is a blue urban island, voting 60% for Barack Obama, rising out of a wide conservative sea of suburban, exurban, and rural red counties.  If Democrats cannot rise up to fight regressive policies like the Metro charter change referendum that would force Metro employees to provide services only in one language, we would have to call it a strike against Kromm's thesis about a "New South" tipping point.  It would not be insignificant because a New South requires progressive victories in its most remote urban outposts.  And we should also be concerned about Kromm's thesis that the South is gaining more clout even as one of its powerful metropolitan areas supports bigoted policies like English Only.

Kromm's analysis of the political arena in the South is limited by his strict focus on the parties rather than trans-party ideological clusters (conservative, moderate, liberal), so any Democratic control or win for him looks progressive.  As I have argued, it is a mistake and a misunderstanding of arenas like Tennessee, where Democrats are frankly and generally not progressive (there are a few exceptions), to stress party affiliation strongly.  When the Democrats look Republican-lite, what difference does it make that a southern state would be in play for Democrats?  I believe that Kromm also focuses on party politics to the exclusion of the role that community-based organizing (which claims in many cases to be "nonpartisan") has played in electoral politics, especially in 2008.  A different but relevant question is:  have community organizations, which have been growing nationwide for the last 50 years, made Obama's viability possible or has Obama been the catalyst of their greater influence in this election?

While the debate over various interpretations of the November elections will continue, we need to pay close attention now to local initiatives like English Only as significant indicators of whether the conservative, Republican coalition's stranglehold on the South is loosening.  If white Davidson County voters reject English Only or only support it by a small margin, then we may have grounds to speak of a New South "rising."  But Kromm is correct in maintaining that referring to the South synonymously with whites is not only erroneous, but racist.  We have a pretty good idea of how Davidson County Latinos will vote (and the Kurdish community?).  However, Chris Kromm makes the questionable claim that increasing numbers of mobilized African Americans and Latinos in the South represent new opportunities for Democrats and, by implication, progressives.

While African Americans generally have more positive attitudes about immigrants than whites, they also express greater anxiety, alienation, and competition with immigrants.  While a coalition between African Americans and Latinos may be logical, it is not a given in a deep blue county, and I continue to maintain that English Only will pass or fail on African American votes; that is, I believe it will fail if African American Nashvillians overwhelmingly reject it (if African Americans overwhelmingly support it and it fails or reject it and it passes, I will eat humble pie and concede that I was wrong).  Hence, if English Only in Nashville passes in January (assuming an election is not disqualified by a court) it will weaken Chris Kromm's hypothesis of a New South "rising," at least until the Davidson County immigrant community grows larger in few years.

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