executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure magazine.
civil rights activist and community organizer in Columbia, South Carolina. He is author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.
With the Democratic National Convention taking place in North Carolina — and last week’s Republican National Convention in Florida — we look at the political landscape of the South. The region is home to half of the country’s African-American population, and Latino voter registration has doubled since 2008. Analysts say nearly one-third of the total Electoral College votes needed to be elected president come from Southern states — and that share will likely grow in the future. We’re joined by two guests: Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, and Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights activist and community organizer in Columbia, South Carolina. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We are "Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency," our daily two hours of coverage—if you miss any of the hours, you can go to our website at democracynow.org—from the Republican convention in Tampa to the Democratic convention here in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m Amy Goodman.
With the Democratic convention taking place right here in North Carolina and last week’s Republican National Convention in Florida, we turn now to look at the political landscape of the South. The region is home to half the country’s African-American population, and Latino voter registration has doubled since 2008. It now accounts for up to 2 percent of voters, just enough to potentially determine the outcome of the 2012 election. Analysts say nearly a third of the total Electoral College votes needed to be elected president come from Southern states, and that share will likely grow in the future.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure magazine. And we’re joined by Kevin Alexander Gray, civil rights activist, community organizer in Columbia, South Carolina, author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to begin with Kevin Gray. Tonight Bill Clinton speaks. Talk about President Bill Clinton.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, right now, there is no great Southern white moderate Democrat that we’ve seen in the past, like a Jimmy Carter, although some people would really—they don’t want to see Jimmy Carter on that stage. But Bill Clinton kind of takes the role—
AMY GOODMAN: And he didn’t take the stage, as he didn’t in the 2008.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: No.
AMY GOODMAN: There, he just waved to people; here, he was on video.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: He just waved and walked off stage. But there are no great Southern Democratic moderates, except for Bill Clinton. And Bill Clinton kind of plays the role of Jesse Jackson for Barack Obama, where he’s supposed to go out and collect up those white votes and vouch for Barack Obama in the South. So, it’s going to be interesting. And, of course, we’ll see if Bill Clinton makes this his convention and makes the party remain Clinton’s party.
AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Jackson ran for president, and in the broadcast, we played a conversation I had with him. I spotted him sort of standing there near the Illinois delegation.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: His relationship to Clinton?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, you know, Reverend represented the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Clinton represented the DLC.
AMY GOODMAN: The Democratic Leadership Council.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: The Democratic—or the Democratic Leisure Class, as Reverend used to call them. And it’s all about Democrats looking more like Republicans, which a lot of us say has led to the downfall of the Democratic Party in most of the Southern states, because there’s not that much difference between a Southern Democrat and a Southern Republican.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Kromm, talk more about what’s happening in the South.
CHRIS KROMM: Well, I think what we saw yesterday was a glimpse of the new emerging politics in the South and Democrats feverishly trying to excite this base that won them Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in 2008. We saw that clearest with Mayor Castro from San Antonio, who really does represent some big changes that are happening in the South. Now, Kevin and I, if we had a nickel for every time somebody told us a new South is right around the corner—
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Yeah, really.
CHRIS KROMM: —we’d have enough money to fund a convention, probably. But the truth is, there are big changes happening. This isn’t just the land of tobacco, NASCAR and barbecue—as I recently did at a speaking engagement. I asked people to say what do they think of the South. This also is the land of tiendas, where you have nine out of 12 of the states with the fastest-growing Latino communities are in the South. That’s clearest in a place like Texas, but also in a place like North Carolina, where the number, as you said, of Latino voters has doubled since 2008. It could definitely make a difference in a state like North Carolina.
Since 1619, it’s been the home of the nation’s African-American community, and you especially see that now in urban centers. Charlotte was the sixth-fastest city. They had the fastest-growing African-American community in the 2010 census. That’s some real political power that you’re seeing in some of the Southern cities, young urban voters. So this is all adding up to real change that’s happening in the South, and the real question in every Southern state is how fast is that happening, and can Democrats really reach out and mobilize that constituency to get some votes in November?
AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about how the South is changing.
CHRIS KROMM: Well, really, the demographic change is dramatic. And I think a lot of people don’t understand not just how the demographics are changing, the face of the entire country is changing; it’s how fast it’s changing in the South. You see communities that just 10 years ago were 70 percent white, 80 percent white. Now they’re becoming majority minority communities, in places near Atlanta, Georgia, in South Carolina, North Carolina. That is the new emerging South. That is the demographic reality.
But the fact is, demography isn’t destiny. That only is going to translate into political power if those people are excited about voting, if there aren’t too many barriers to voting—and we see the recent attacks on voting rights throughout the South—and if those people really get out and vote when it comes to Election Day.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of the first night of the Democratic convention, last night. The evening culminated—there were many women who took the stage—in fact, the whole female Democratic congressional delegation. The keynote address was Julián Castro from San Antonio. But then, finally, it was Michelle Obama. It was actually reversed at the Republican convention. They had Ann Romney speak, and then they had the keynote from the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. So let’s turn to a clip of the first lady, Michelle Obama.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Barack was raised by a single mom who struggled to pay the bills and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help. Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank. And she moved quickly up the ranks, but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was, men she had actually trained, were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money, while Barack’s family continued to scrape by. But day after day, she kept on waking up at dawn to catch the bus, arriving at work before anyone else, giving her best without complaint or regret. And she would often tell Barack, "So long as you kids do well, Bar, that’s all that really matters."
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Michelle Obama speaking on Tuesday night, the first night of the Democratic National Convention. Kevin Alexander Gray?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: I was looking at the speech, and it looked like Michelle Obama had a Jesse Jackson moment. In 1988 in Atlanta, when Jesse made his speech, Jesse talked about the people who changed the bedpans in hospitals and couldn’t sleep in those beds, the people who get up to catch the early bus to come to work at the conventions, as they have done at this convention, people getting up at 4:00 in the morning, working all day, leaving at midnight, and having to come back at 5:00, yet they don’t have healthcare. So, of course, you know, it is about the working class. And last night, if you closed your eyes, it sounded almost like the Democrats were progressive.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, I mean, they were—we’re talking about workers’ rights, women’s rights, the military and looking out for veterans. It’s—of course, the policies of this administration are not all that progressive to people like me, because we—you know, what is progress from assassinating people—from torturing people to assassinating people? And you talk about whether or not people have jobs and whether or not we are doing better four years after Barack Obama, well, the unemployment rate among blacks and people of color has increased dramatically since the president has been in office. And there’s no relief in sight. And so, we’re hoping—as I said, you know, you look at Michelle Obama. She’s popular. Of course she’s going to support her husband, and people love Michelle Obama. But when it comes down to it, it’s still about economics. And the people that you depend on the most, your base, that base is being left out of the mix in all of this. And, you know, can you really truthfully say to them—they’re still losing their houses in record number—they are better off? They’re still having to go on multiple tours in the Middle East, where we spend $1.5 million per troop per tour? Are we really better off?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn back to another clip of Michelle Obama last night at the Democratic National Convention. She highlighted military families and talked about seeing what she called "the very best of the American spirit."
MICHELLE OBAMA: I’ve seen it in our men and women in uniform and our proud military families; in wounded warriors who tell me they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run, and they’re going to run marathons; in the young man blinded by a bomb in Afghanistan who said simply, "I’d give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do."
AMY GOODMAN: That was Michelle Obama speaking on the first night. In fact, she was introduced by a mother who had a number of children in the military, saying—I think it was five kids she had, four in the military. And she’s hoping that her high-school son will also choose the military. Chris Kromm, the significance of this?
CHRIS KROMM: Well, you know, what they say is, if you live in the South, somebody you know is in the military. There’s no question that this is the home of the military-industrial complex, is the South. From what we had looked at, about 56 to 60 percent of the troops are based in Southern states. About 45 percent of the troops come from Southern states. So, this really is the home. And in North Carolina, really it’s an advertising point, that it’s the most military friendly state in the country.
So what you have is two issues here. One is, you see, on the level of rhetoric and theater at the Democratic convention, trying to reach out and associate with those, identify with those families, by really playing that big-time about the connection to military families and what they’re going through. That kind of chafes against the reality of—that this administration has been slow to really shift course on a lot of aspects of foreign policy, and so a lot of people who are most affected by our current foreign policy are really wondering how fast this is going to change. Now, clearly there has been some change. I don’t want to undersell that. I think that’s clear. But in terms of what military families are really going through, you can see that this is something—and it was surprising to see, that usually it’s the Republican convention, right? where you see that rhetoric really amped up to the 10th level. And so, it was interesting to see that it was Democrats really trying to seize the initiative in speaking out to that constituency. But I think the question on the ground for those families most affected by it is, what’s changing?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: And you noticed that at the Republican convention they didn’t talk about war and the military. And what Chris said is so true. I’m a former military officer. My father served 27 years in the Navy. I have three brothers; all of them served in the Army. Most of my nephews now, because I asked my son, "Don’t" — when he asked me, "Should I go in the military?" "Don’t go." But most of my nephews have been in the military on multiple tours. And when you ask them—I had one that did two tours in Afghanistan and one tour in Iraq. "That $4.5 million that they spent on you, what could you do with it now?" He said, "Well, I could pay for my education," because that kid is unemployed. All this boosting of the military and boosting of the empire, and using the soft face of Michelle Obama to build empire and to take it from the weakest segments of society, to say that that’s the only economic opportunity that you can have, people ought to question that.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to shift gears a little bit, Chris Kromm, and ask you about a conversation we were just having—it was about Karl Rove—but to talk about the research that you’ve been doing following the money in North Carolina politics.
CHRIS KROMM: Well, after Citizens United, of course, there was a talk about how outside money was really going to take over politics. Money has always been a big factor in politics, of course, but after that decision, about how this outside money could play a role. Most of that, what you saw in the media, was about what happens at the national level. And in 2010, we wanted to look at what could happen in a battleground state like North Carolina. And all roads led to one man named Art Pope, who’s really the right-hand man of the Koch brothers. When you hear about Americans for Prosperity, everybody says the Koch brothers. Well, their right-hand man is Art Pope. He’s the second-biggest contributor to Americans for Prosperity. He’s chairman of the organization nationally.
But in North Carolina, he’s built a money empire that really—you were talking about money raining down in North Carolina. We had a thunderstorm in 2010, where he put in record amounts of money into state legislative races. Seventy-five percent of the outside money that came flooding into our state legislature came from Pope-backed groups. He won almost 80 percent of those races, leading to the first Republican takeover of the legislature in a hundred years. Why was that important? Because they got to redraw the political maps of a state that was blue-trending and turn it into a red state, which is where it is right now, the polls showing that it’s going for Romney. The state legislature will likely stay in Republican hands. The governor is likely going to be a Republican in Pat McCrory. So you had a state with the demographics—the fundamentals of the state are going blue, but because of the influence of this one outside player, you can see the impact that kind of money can have in shifting a state.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Greenwald did a really interesting documentary about the Koch brothers and focused here on this county, Wake County, in a local school board election, these parents who thought, oh, it’s their civic duty to participate, and they’re running—and they realize they didn’t realize what they had gotten themselves into.
CHRIS KROMM: It was absolutely astounding. And that was another race where Art Pope was called the architect of the takeover of this county school board, which dismantled a historic desegregation policy in that school system. And so, that showed, from the county level of a school system—he was called the architect of that—to the entire takeover of the state legislature, it’s not just about the Koch brothers on the national scale. This is the kind of thing that, even on a state—it has even bigger influence when somebody like a Pope can drop $200,000, $300,000 in a race and could change the complexion of an entire populace.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: And tell her where that money comes from.
AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Alexander Gray?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: And tell her where that money comes from, because Chris could probably tell you where those stores are placed where he makes his money.
CHRIS KROMM: It’s a discount retail chain targeting African-American low-income communities. It’s kind of like the budget version of Wal-Mart. And he goes into these communities. Their business plan is to go into these communities. So, the question is, how many of those low-income African-American shoppers know that they’re funding one of the strongest statewide right-wing political machines in the country?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about voter ID very quickly. I mean—and, first, Chris, talk about the significance of what’s happening through the South and other places in the country, and then, Kevin, the significance of voter ID laws when it comes to the Carolinas, from literacy tests to poll taxes. Chris?
CHRIS KROMM: Well, clearly, I see this as a pushback to these changes. The South is changing, and there’s a new majority that’s forming. And you saw in 2010, after all the state legislators had said jobs was their number-one issue, and then, surprisingly, when they came into power, voter ID became—was at the top of the agenda. I think it was a very conscious pushback to the fact that they’re scared of this new emerging majority. It’s just like Reconstruction, it’s just like the civil rights era, where they know that there’s a growing political force. And one of the key ways, there’s redistricting, there’s anti-immigrant laws, there’s also voter ID, and laws that clearly the evidence shows that it’s disproportionately Latino and African-American victims.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: It’s still the whole theory of interposition and nullification. We’re going to nullify this growing black and Latino presence in the South. And, of course, you know, South Carolina is like North Carolina’s evil sister, where we’re the ideological home of white supremacy. But, you know, in the South, it has always been about race. It’s always been about suppressing the black vote. It’s not just Florida. It’s not just voter ID now. It’s poll taxes. It’s literacy tests. It’s counting how many bubbles are in a bar of soap in order to be able to register to vote. And, of course, in this particular race this year—
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got to go here, but we’re going to continue the conversation, Kevin Gray and Chris Kromm. If you want to go to our website at democracynow.org, you’ll see the transcript, you can listen, you can watch.