Dixie Chicken

Racial appeals of last week's primary are reminders of St. Louis' Southern streak

The Shark even serves up a fat rationalization for Shelton's use of the race card.

"It's a politically compelling point for him to make that that district has historically been represented by black elected officials," she says. "His actions, from my point of view, have not just been color-blind but courageously so."

There's another way to look at this: Shelton backed Joyce's run for circuit attorney over two black challengers, and the Shark is making a down payment on that political debt. But the Shark doesn't like her support of Shelton portrayed strictly as quid pro quo, particularly in light of the racial appeal made by her newfound political buddy.

"That's not the reason I'm supporting him," she says. "Part of what I like about O.L. is that he's proven to me that he's not going to make a decision based on race but on what's right for his constituents.... He went way out on a limb and supported me, and that told me a lot about his character. That was a real profile-in-courage move that spoke volumes to me."

"Profile in racial politics" would be a more accurate description of Shelton's ad, says Ann Auer, Dougherty's campaign manager: "Basically it was a racial ad that ignored the population in the southern part of the district. Since redistricting, it's a much more diverse district, and [Shelton] chose to ignore that."

Successful challenger Yaphett El-Amin's much smaller American ad against incumbent state Representative Ocie B. Johnson (D-57th District) made another pointed racial appeal. It featured a faceless silhouette of Johnson "and his boss," Mayor Francis Slay, who isn't named but whose smiling portrait appears opposite El-Amin's.

The ad portrays Johnson as a Slay puppet, playing to the distaste black voters hold for Frankie the Saint, the quintessential South Sider, for his ramrodding of a redistricting plan that took Alderwoman Sharon Tyus' 20th Ward away from her.

El-Amin's ad also touches on another old sore point for the city's black voters and pols -- the uneven distribution of $37 million in federal and local street-improvement money two years ago, $35 million of that amount going to projects on the South Side and the central corridor, but just $2 million to the North Side.

Although some weighty technical reasons help explain this imbalance, those arguments got lost in the heated political debate of a city where everything is viewed through the fractured prism of race. And even though this battle took place on former Mayor Clarence Harmon's watch, Frankie the Saint got tagged for pushing a South Side-slanted deal because, as president of the Board of Aldermen, he rammed the project list past the board after it failed a first vote.

All of this emphasizes the Southern streak in St. Louis, a clannish city that doesn't feel Dixie-fried but seems to share some of the same ghostly contradictions and seems rooted in a cynical form of racial politics that few want to acknowledge and nobody wants to challenge.

"Most of us do not acknowledge that we're Southern," says former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. "It's denial. We'd rather be perceived as more Northern or Midwestern, but it's clear that we still have a lot of Southern influences. It's Southern in the sense of racial polarization. There's a very strong reluctance to acknowledge the race issue here."

Economic stagnation and the city's steady population loss perpetuate this political status quo and the standoff between blacks and whites, says Jones. Unlike the booming cities of the Sun Belt South, there isn't a steady stream of newcomers hitting town, challenging the old political and economic orders and pushing their way upward through the city's corporate and civic ranks.

Down in Alabama, there's a psychobilly group known as the Drive-By Truckers, fronted by lead singer Patterson Hood. On a Friday night at Frederick's Music Lounge, several weeks before the primary, they took the tiny stage to sing a fiery sermon of Southern perfidy and redemption.

Southern icons both tainted and sainted pepper the music -- Wallace, Bear Bryant and Birmingham, the city of church bombings and four dead black Sunday-school girls, the turf of Bull Connor, firehoses and snarling German shepherds.

When the Speedloader lived in Birmingham, the city was on the cusp of electing its first black mayor and Wallace was gearing up for a final gubernatorial run that would see him garner 90 percent of the state's black vote -- testimony to the South's political and racial contradictions.

Bryant still rumbled on the Alabama sidelines, a living legend in his hound's-tooth hat, cutting Mother's Day commercials for Southern Bell with a voice full of filterless smoke and Old Testament age: "Have you called your mama lately? Sure wish I could call mine." He won his first Crimson Tide national championship in 1961 with a lily-white team; he won his last in 1979 with a fully integrated squad.

Thanks to Wallace, though, it's much easier to ignore such progress, Hood sang in a raspy voice. Easier, too, to put a Southern accent on racism and all its permutations, even though it's still a nationwide problem that ignores the comfortable and one-way cliché of rednecks and Kluxers throwing down on blacks.

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