The Silent Majority

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Lassiter, Matthew D., The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Princeton University Press, 2006. 365 pp. Hard Back ISBN 978-0-691-09255-3


Summary

Alex Bradshaw; Fall 2012

Lassiter argues, much like other authors this semester, against the predominant belief in southern exceptionalism in reference to racial relations in the United States during the twentieth-century. Lassiter’s premise is that race-centered explanations of the political transformations after the civil rights gains of the middle of the century are extreme over-simplifications that discount or altogether ignore large and small contributing events and motivations. Lassiter’s focus in this book is on the roles that suburban residents and reactions to requirements for compliance with the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision played in the shape that the nation’s political system assumed beginning in the final decades of the twentieth-century. His account details a struggle that we still see today and it highlights some of the questions and often ambiguously-defined values that define the social lives and relationships that many Americans continue to experience. Lassiter used the term, the “sunbelt synthesis” to describe his findings that, following the Civil Rights Act, there was a grassroots mobilization that took control of racial discourse and subsumed it with politics of middle-class entitlement. In the sunbelt synthesis, discrimination came to be represented and practiced in terms of geography, class, and without overt language of racism. Through the use of geography - the locations of neighborhoods – the legality and permanence of segregation by color could be ensured. The actions of the sunbelt synthesis were legitimized by the Supreme Court’s assertion that the Brown vs. Board of Education decision applied to segregation imposed by law, not segregation imposed by practice and by the fact that the Civil Rights Act specifically excluded student busing from desegregation policy. This also further guaranteed the permanence of this kind of separation. Lassiter argued that the sunbelt synthesis was manifested by the anti-busing movements that swept the country in the years that followed the Civil Rights Act. There was a nation-wide effort to mobilize parents and homeowners in middle-class suburbs to fight school busing, ostensibly not based on race, but on class issues and concern over quality of education. The parents argued that they wanted the ability to control where their children went to school and that busing their children to schools in poor neighborhoods would force them into poor education. The parents were demanding a separation of people by class, rather than race. In some places, the reactions to busing were characterized by white parents who wanted to either keep their children out of majority black schools or keep black children out of formerly all-white schools, while, in other places, the responses were characterized by parents demanding that busing of students be fairly applied to all neighborhoods because there were some more affluent areas in which busing had been avoided altogether, despite legal and official requirements and proclamations. The ways in which different parents, judicial authorities, legislators, and politicians responded to busing as a solution to desegregation requirements constituted one aspect of the birth of the U.S. political system as we currently know it, and Lassiter’s study is one volume in a relatively recently growing historiographic trend that counters the mythology of southern exceptionalism and seeks to present the history of late twentieth-century America with greater complexity and nuance than traditional accounts of racism and reactionism have allowed for. Some of the actors in Lassiter’s story embarked upon careers of political action when they participated in busing-related activism, some developed passionate concern for conservative political values and affiliations that lasted for the rest of their lives, and others developed the same degree of concern for and affiliation with liberal politics. While a significant number of the parents in this book were motivated, at least in part, by racism, Lassiter makes it clear that, even in those instances, race was generally only one element of the complex and varied factors that defined the identities of the two main political parties during the remainder of the century.

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