I came across a quote that seemed to me to capture a great deal of truth about how race politics is conducted in the US. It is by president Lyndon B. Johnson who was widely recognized as a shrewd and cynical politician who knew how to work the system to his advantage and get his agenda through.

Johnson’s stances on race were complicated. As the above article says, he started as a flat-out racist but later, he used the insights gained from being one to persuade similar politicians to pass the Civil Rights Act.

For two decades in Congress he was a reliable member of the Southern bloc, helping to stonewall civil rights legislation. As [biographer Robert] Caro recalls, Johnson spent the late 1940s railing against the “hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves” in East Asia. Buying into the stereotype that blacks were afraid of snakes (who isn’t afraid of snakes?) he’d drive to gas stations with one in his trunk and try to trick black attendants into opening it. Once, Caro writes, the stunt nearly ended with him being beaten with a tire iron.

Yet by the time Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, he was ready to plow all of his political capital to the passage of the civil rights legislation initiated by his predecessor. By most accounts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 couldn’t have become law when it did had not LBJ personally wheedled, cajoled, and shamed his former colleagues in the House and Senate into voting for it. One of the secrets of his success was the ability to speak the racially insensitive language of his fellow Southerners. He understood them. He understood their reluctance and in some cases downright refusal to tear down the walls of racial segregation. He knew racism from the inside, and he knew well the role the rich and powerful played in promulgating it.

It was his aide and later press secretary Bill Moyers who set the stage for the telling quote.

We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

This explains why so many poor white people will go along with policies that actually hurt themselves, and thus oppose universal free health car or more generous social welfare polices or higher minimum wages. They think that those policies will benefit black people more than it will them. They think that somehow, magically, their situation will get better all by itself while black people are the ones who need those policies for betterment.


  1. says

    Johnson’s sentiment is a common one.

    Years ago a friend of mine who was the niece of an Iowan farmer told me that her uncle once waxed eloquent and said to told her: I may be a poor dirt farmer, but at least I’m not a damn n*****.

  2. Allison says

    Johnson’s sentiment is a common one.

    To be picky, it was not Johnson’s sentiment, it was his reading of how most of his constituents felt.

    And he’s hardly the first person to notice that. It’s a subtext in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s how the aristocracy (the “quality”) in the South has kept the “po’ white” folks under control for centuries, and thinking people have remarked on it for about that long. Of course, thinking is regarded with suspicion in the South. (At least, it was when I was growing up there.)

    For that matter, it’s the strategy that Nixon used to keep the white working class from making common cause with the African-American working class.

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