The New Redemption Localism's Threat to Multiracial Democracy in the South

Daniel Farbman is Assistant Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. This post is based on his presentation for the 2021 North Carolina Law Review Symposium "Home Rule in the 21st Century"

Right now, Georgia is the poster-child for what ails our localism. On the one hand, the new “election integrity” law in Georgia gives the state legislature the power to take over election administration from any county it chooses to. This provision is clearly aimed at large urban counties where the electorate is less white and less Republican—and it is intended as a tool for the Republican state legislature to police and perhaps meddle with the outcome of elections in those counties. At the same time that the state is removing power from its largest cities, one of the richest (and whitest) neighborhoods in Atlanta is trying to secede from the city. A new city of Buckhead would take 40% of Atlanta’s taxable property and would be much richer and much whiter than Atlanta. The rallying cry in Buckhead is “local control” over taxes and services—which is to say keeping the wealthy residents’ money from being spent on their neighbors in poorer parts of Atlanta.

Although these two stratagems are superficially inconsistent with respect to local power (the election law limits local power while secession empowers new local formations), they share a depressing political commitment to preserving a certain kind of power: that of those who are richer and whiter and who do not want to be governed and taxed by their neighbors who are poorer and less white. In my forthcoming essay as part of the Home Rule in the 21st Century Symposium in the North Carolina Law Review, I call this dismally familiar approach to local power Redemption Localism. Redemption localists are agnostic about whether local power is good or bad. They use localism and local power as a tool to protect against redistribution and to increase and preserve the political power of white voters.

The term “Redemption Localism” emerges from history. In the years after the end of the Civil War, a group of idealists, radicals, and formerly enslaved citizens sought to build a new, multi-racial and egalitarian political order in the South. We call this effort Reconstruction, but at the local level in places like Georgia and North Carolina it was more like a revolution. The old local order rooted in racial hierarchy and the economic order of slavery gave power to a small group of elite, white landowners who governed at the county level. With the end of slavery came a seismic shift in the polity in the form of millions of new citizens who had formerly been enslaved who were now neighbors and voters. To varying degrees, across the South, this shift fundamentally altered the public and private ordering of local governance. (For a fuller account of this story, take a look at my article Reconstructing Local Government which tells the story of the effort to transplant the New England town into North Carolina). This shift was felt especially sharply by the white elites in the counties that had previously been dominated by plantation agriculture but where now, with emancipation, black voters now formed the political majority.

It was in these plantation counties across the South that resentful former elites began to pine for the old “southern way of life.” They openly called themselves “white supremacists” and argued that the South needed to be “redeemed” from the monstrous indignity and injustice of “negro rule.” We are more familiar with the ways in which their “Redemption” movement swamped statehouses and then helped snuff out Reconstruction. But a great deal of the work of redemption was done by white supremacists at the local level struggling for power and struggling to dismantle the infrastructure of multi-racial democracy that Reconstruction had established.

In North Carolina, for example, white supremacists sought to limit the power of black citizens at the local level using three entwined strategies: dilution, centralization, and retrenchment. They deliberately diluted the potential power of black voters by organizing local government at the county court level where local authority was weak, local services were few, and the traditional planter elite were better positioned to retain power. When this failed to limit black political power in the old plantation counties, they centralized—giving the state legislature the power to appoint and remove local officials (and stripping local electorates of their power to elect those officials). And finally, to protect against the lurking possibility that white property would be taxed to provide services to their black neighbors, they committed themselves to gutting public spending and public services through retrenchment.

The explicit goal of Redemption was to strip political power from black citizens and return the South to the “good old days” of racial hierarchy. The end point of this struggle was the apartheid of Jim Crow—but it is a mistake to elide Redemption with Jim Crow. Redemption Localism reflects the ways in which white supremacists manipulated the structural legalities of local governance to snuff out black political power. But while the dismal results seem inevitable to us today, they were measures taken against the backdrop of a working (if weakened) multi-racial political culture. Redemption localism was part of a project of destroying that culture. It was only once it was destroyed that the stable oppressive system of Jim Crow could be established.

Which brings us back to the present, and Georgia. It would be too facile to simply say that what is happening today is the extension of the explicit white supremacy of Redemption. And yet the parallels between past and present are salient enough to help us think more clearly about what is happening today. Both Buckhead’s secession and the effort to centralize election supervision are manipulations of local power in service of a retreat from the (fragile but not-yet-shattered) multi-racial democracy that we have built since the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights Era. Understanding the dismal maneuverings of local power to protect against redistribution and to protect white political power as Redemption Localism for our new, second Redemption reveals the stakes with which we are playing. If we take the promise of a participatory, multi-racial democratic project seriously, we must fight these New Redeemers to reclaim and embrace a localism that keeps faith with a less dismal vision of our collective political project.