Republicans’ and Democrats’ rival interpretations of the relationship between their parties’ past and present racial policies are well-known. Republicans stress their predecessors’ role in the elimination of slavery and their party’s consistent support for racially neutral law—arguing that Democrats have merely changed which race they legally privilege. Democrats claim racial neutrality was a “first step” in a “pro-black direction” but is now (at best) de facto tolerance of racism.
Few ask the crucial question: Why did the Democrats change so drastically? The reason is that their positions on race have never really been about race. Race politics have consistently been a means to an end: destruction of traditional class hierarchies. The change from denying to accepting the equal humanity of blacks has changed only the place Democrats have given them within an otherwise consistent vision.
As University of Virginia Professor Jeffrey Zvengrowski has recently demonstrated in his magisterial Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology, 1815-1870, popular impressions of the Old South stem not from historical fact but from post-Civil War glorification of the Lost Cause and from Leftist criticism.