Power struggles: How Tennessee became more racially and politically divided

phys.org | 2/8/2018 | Staff
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Tennessee has long been considered politically moderate and relatively racially progressive, compared to other southern states. But researchers say the Volunteer State has become considerably more conservative—and racially polarized—since the turn of the 21st century.

In a new book co-authored by a Penn State researcher, the authors explored how racial dynamics, policy changes and political party shifts—combined with the history and legacy of the state—contributed to Tennessee transitioning from a swing state to one that is now strongly Republican from 2000 to 2012.

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The book—"Losing Power: African Americans and Racial Polarization in Tennessee Politics" —was published Jan. 15 by the University of Georgia Press.

Ray Block Jr., associate professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State, said because Tennessee represents U.S. politics on a smaller scale, the research findings offer insight into race and politics across the country.

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"As Tennessee has become more politically polarized, it has also become more racially polarized, which is both one of the causes and one of the consequences of black Tennesseans' recent loss of political power," Block said. "This has contributed to anti-minority rhetoric, racially regressive policy making, and an increasing number of barriers facing African Americans who are able to win political office."

According to Block, Tennessee has traditionally had a reputation for being more racially progressive than other Confederate States. While Tennessee was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, it was also the first state to join the Union and the only southern state to ratify the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans.

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Prior to the turn of the 21st century, Block said, Tennessee was a swing state that did not guarantee victory for either Republican or Democratic candidates. But, since 2010, the state has become increasingly more conservative, much like the greater United States.

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