The problem of the color line

Updated

Last week, during a brief tangent in our discussion of Medicare that got at the nature of the Republican base, I was defending the GOP base against generalizations that they are, as a blanket matter, racists, misogynistic and homophobic and then concluded with this statement:

“It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.”


The problem with that statement is that it’s not true. I was just wrong about what the data say about the way explicit, avowed racists are distributed between the two parties. Economist Alex Tabarrok looked at some data from 2002 that show roughly equal percentages of white Democrats and white Republicans (around 10%) favor laws against interracial marriage and about 15% of white members of both parties agree strongly with the statement “blacks shouldn’t be pushy.”

He points to overwhelming majorities of both Democrats and Republicans who say they would vote for a black president and concludes: “It is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties. No party has a monopoly on racists.”

Political scientist John Sides responded to Tabbarok to flesh out the picture a bit. Using data from the  2008 National Election Study he shows that the people who express explicitly racist views—such as that black people are lazy, or that black people are unintelligent—are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. “Identification with the Democratic Party tends to decline, and identification with the Republican party tends to increase, as attitudes toward blacks become less favorable.”

And when you look at General Social Survey data through the prism of ideology, this tendency is even clearer. Razib Khan writing for Discover Magazine points out that twice as many white conservatives as white liberals would “strongly oppose” a close relative marrying a black person. The good news is that the numbers in both cases are low, only 20% of white conservatives and 10% of white liberals.

So: I was wrong when I said that “It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.” That is simply not borne out by the data. It was a moment, frankly, when my own biases led me to say something that wasn’t true. My bad for saying it and thank you internet for correcting me. But my deeper mistake was focusing on racists as a countable group of individuals, as people with an essential core nature that can be analyzed and charted. Rather than focusing on how race reverberates through the two different political coalitions and the vast racial disparites in the effects of the policies favored by each of those coalitions. This is a seductive error that the great Jay Smooth has warned us about, in his now classic how-to video about how to talk about race and racism.

Remember the difference between the what they did conversation and the what they are conversation… The what they did conversation focuses strictly on the person’s words and actions and explaining why what they did and what they said is unacceptable… the what they are conversation on the other hand takes things one step further and uses what they did and what they said to draw conclusions about what kind of person they are. I don’t care what he is but I need to hold him accountable for what he did, and that’s how we need to approach these conversations about race.


So instead of focusing on what conservatives are, we should keep the conversation focused on what they are doing, or, what they are calling for, and in this realm there are some very obvious racial asymmetries. The first and most obvious one is an issue we’ve been covering here on Up and on the network, the Republican push in many states to impose new restrictions on voting—whether through voter ID laws, or curtailiment of early voting—that will disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.

One Ohio county chairman told the Columbus Dispatch he opposed additional voting hours because, “we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read, African-American—voter-turnout machine.” But the reality is, you don’t have to have a single individual white racist in the entire party to pursue this strategy. And this is the core truth about American politics—we have a multi-racial society with two political coalitions. One of those coalitions, the Democrats, contains almost all of the African Americans, a majority of Latinos, and Asians and a minority of white people. The obvious racial disparity you see at the political rallies is also reflected in the institutional makeup of the parties.

This is the racial breakdown of the US, according to the 2010 census:

This is the racial breakdown of delegates to the DNC in 2008:

And this is the racial breakdown for delegates to the RNC in 2008:

It is therefore not too surprising that in Tuesday’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll Romney managed to get zero percent support from black voters. And keep in mind this is a country that is only growing less white. This is what America’s racial composition will look like in 2050, according to the Census Bureau: Just 50% white.

Into a nation already reeling from a total crisis of authority, a cascade of institutional failure, and a stalking, corrosive anxiety about decline, the multi-racial political party nominated and then managed to get elected the first black man to run the country in the nation’s history.

And one of the chief paradoxes of his time in office is that despite the fact that the economic misery produced by the crisis and recession has fallen disproportionately on people of color, they, according to Pew, are far more optimistic about the future than white people are. Barack Obama was elected partly on an implicit promise, or at least a promise thrust upon him, to suture the still gaping wounds of slavery, white-supremacist terrorism, rape, lynching, discrimination, and humiliation that have marked our body politic from its birth.

Today, it is a wound that if no longer festering quite so openly is scarred over in such away that it cannot be scrubbed away or excised or even covered. It is part of who we are. At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois predicted, rightly, that the “problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Twelve years into the 21st century, on the eve of the nominating convention for the party that destroyed slavery and enshrined the right to vote and due process into the constitution, in the midst of the hard-fought reelection battle of the first black president, that line seems as un-erasable as ever from our politics.

The problem of the color line

Updated