Wednesday, September 26

Politics in Black and White

The New York Times
September 24, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
Politics in Black and White

Last Thursday there was a huge march in Jena, La., to protest the harsh and unequal treatment of six black students arrested in the beating of a white classmate. Students who hung nooses to warn blacks not to sit under a “white” tree were suspended for three days; on the other hand, the students accused in the beating were initially charged with second-degree attempted murder.

And one of the Jena Six remains in jail, even though appeals courts have voided his conviction on the grounds that he was improperly tried as an adult.

Many press accounts of the march have a tone of amazement. Scenes like those in Jena, the stories seemed to imply, belonged in the 1960s, not the 21st century. The headline on the New York Times report, “Protest in Louisiana Case Echoes the Civil Rights Era,” was fairly typical.

But the reality is that things haven’t changed nearly as much as people think. Racial tension, especially in the South, has never gone away, and has never stopped being important. And race remains one of the defining factors in modern American politics.

Consider voting in last year’s Congressional elections. Republicans, as President Bush conceded, received a “thumping,” with almost every major demographic group turning against them. The one big exception was Southern whites, 62 percent of whom voted Republican in House races.

And yes, Southern white exceptionalism is about race, much more than it is about moral values, religion, support for the military or other explanations sometimes offered. There’s a large statistical literature on the subject, whose conclusion is summed up by the political scientist Thomas F. Schaller in his book “Whistling Past Dixie”: “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters to depict American conservatism as a nonracial phenomenon, the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”

Republican politicians, who understand quite well that the G.O.P.’s national success since the 1970s owes everything to the partisan switch of Southern whites, have tacitly acknowledged this reality. Since the days of Gerald Ford, just about every Republican presidential campaign has included some symbolic gesture of approval for good old-fashioned racism.

Thus Ronald Reagan, who began his political career by campaigning against California’s Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states’ rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered. In 2000, Mr. Bush made a pilgrimage to Bob Jones University, famed at the time for its ban on interracial dating.

And all four leading Republican candidates for the 2008 nomination have turned down an invitation to a debate on minority issues scheduled to air on PBS this week.

Yet if the marchers at Jena reminded us that America still hasn’t fully purged itself of the poisonous legacy of slavery, it would be wrong to suggest that the nation has made no progress. Racism, though not gone, is greatly diminished: both opinion polls and daily experience suggest that we are truly becoming a more tolerant, open society.

And the cynicism of the “Southern strategy” introduced by Richard Nixon, which delivered decades of political victories to Republicans, is now starting to look like a trap for the G.O.P.

One of the truly remarkable things about the contest for the Republican nomination is the way the contenders have snubbed not just blacks — who, given the G.O.P.’s modern history, probably won’t vote for a Republican in significant numbers no matter what — but Hispanics. In July, all the major contenders refused invitations to address the National Council of La Raza, which Mr. Bush addressed in 2000. Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, had to cancel a debate scheduled for Sept. 16 because only John McCain was willing to come.

If this sounds like a good way to ensure defeat in future elections, that’s because it is: Hispanics are a rapidly growing force in the electorate.

But to get the Republican nomination, a candidate must appeal to the base — and the base consists, in large part, of Southern whites who carry over to immigrants the same racial attitudes that brought them into the Republican fold to begin with. As a result, you have the spectacle of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, pragmatists on immigration issues when they actually had to govern in diverse states, trying to reinvent themselves as defenders of Fortress America.

And both Hispanics and Asians, another growing force in the electorate, are getting the message. Last year they voted overwhelmingly Democratic, by 69 percent and 62 percent respectively.

In other words, it looks as if the Republican Party is about to start paying a price for its history of exploiting racial antagonism. If that happens, it will be deeply ironic. But it will also be poetic justice