What Racism, Where?

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 1:58 PM EDT

Digby has two important posts on race, Republicans, and politics in America that deserve a read. No, this stuff has never really gone away, and Digby's characterization seems right to me: "Bush may not personally be a racist, I have no way of knowing what's 'in his heart.' But he is quite well aware of the fact that all the racists in the country who voted, voted for him." Aware now more than ever, perhaps, after Bush's post-Katrina speech—in which he promised, at least nominally, the biggest poverty-spending in a generation and acknowledged that America's legacy of racism has contributed to black poverty—ended up winning over precisely zero liberals and alienated a bunch of Republicans. See, for instance, this Rasmussen poll:

Following the speech, the President's rating for handling the Katrina crisis fell eight points among Republicans (from 71% good or excellent to 63%). The President also draws good or excellent marks from 11% of Democrats and 31% of those not affiliated with either major political party.

Uh-oh. Now maybe that 8 percent drop among Republicans was due to Bush alienating those mythical "fiscal conservatives" holed up somewhere in New Hampshire and Arizona, but I doubt it. If fiscal conservatives weren't appalled by Bush before the speech, they never will be. More likely, the drop came among what Stanley Greenberg likes to call the "Fuck-You Boys" and "Fuck-You Old Men": white, often working-class Republicans who enjoy their social programs as much as anyone else—people who would probably enjoy a Scandinavian socialist state, all else equal—but draw the line when government spending starts going towards "those people." These are voters who can stomach a bit of tokenism among Bush's cabinet appointments, but draw the line at shoveling out $200 billion for black New Orleaners. I don't think these voters just exist in the south—nor do I think they're the only closet racists in the country—but any analysis of politics in the south, or inquiries into why the United States doesn't have a welfare state, needs to start here, with this bloc.

As far as Republicans are concerned, I'm perfectly willing to believe that a number of Republicans aren't actually racist personally. Oh sure, exceptions abound. Trent Lott's paean to Strom Thurmond, or his amicus brief for Bob Jones University, or his involvement in the neo-Confederate movement, speaks for itself. Nor does it take much to conclude that Jeff Sessions of Alabama doesn't much like black people. But set them aside. What seems even more common are Republicans who are perfectly willing to benefit politically from racism, consciously or not. Sometimes the liberal search for "code words" and "code phrases" among Republicans pursuing supposed "Southern strategies" and the like can seem a bit strained. But the overall pattern just isn't hard to spot. George Bush's trip to Bob Jones University had a very clear purpose. The Rove-inspired push polls over John McCain's adopted daughter had a very clear purpose. To pretend that Bush's team of veteran campaigners, who cut their teeth on races in the Deep South, was completely oblivious to the signals these moves send is insane.

The list goes on. You have Bill Frist's 1994 stump speech line during his Senate run, "While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, [my opponent] Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry." I wouldn't ever defend Barry, but what a black mayor in D.C. actually had to do with Tennessee politics isn't entirely clear. Just last fall, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma ran a campaign ad against his Democratic opponent that showed Hispanics and "black hands" receiving welfare checks. In every instance, the method is the same: don't go too overt on the racism, because no one likes that, but subtly appeal to whites who resent those blacks who "drain the public resources," and play up stereotypes. By itself, racial priming of this sort obviously doesn't decide political races; Coburn had an overwhelming advantage regardless. But they do matter. Just look at the poll data.

Crucially, I don't want to suggest that only southern Republicans benefit from racism in this way. Many of the attacks on outsourcing to India and whatnot, even among Democrats, benefit from a similar sort of nativism, regardless of the economic merits in these arguments. Racial politics played an ugly role in the 2001 mayoral primaries in New York City. Governors like Pete Wilson and Jim Edgar came to power in 1994 by running "tough on crime" ads with blurry images of gun-toting African-American rapists. Not surprisingly, race doesn't affect every political campaign—even in the South—in the exact same way. Usually it varies district by district, depending on the racial makeup. I think James Glaser, in The Hand of the Past in Contemporary Southern Politics, described the dynamic well:

The fundamental dynamic of southern politics, a racial dynamic, still holds, however. The process of who gets what, when, and how still must take place between majority whites and a large black minority, and this is the stuff of politics… It is not about candidates being unable to escape the shackles of virulent racism, though some certainly may be constrained by their racial attitudes. The argument here is that the racial balance of a district is determinative of so much of the campaign. The story of Delbert Hosemann is instructive. Here was a white man who had given enormously to the black community, and not from a sense of obligation or for political gain. But as a Republican candidate, he could think of blacks only as "not my people," and savvy as he was, he recognized that there were no circumstances under which he could make headway into the black community.

That, I think, is mostly what people are dealing with: political constraints superimposed on America's long and over-determined history of race. On the congressional level, for Republicans in southern districts with a sizeable Africa-American population, the only way to win is to turn-out the white voters, the "fuck-you boys," and you do that however you can. In districts with fewer black voters, this becomes less important—again, see Glaser's Race, Campaign Politics, and the Realignment in the South. Similarly, Democrats rely heavily on racial appeals in majority-black districts, although I think this is qualitatively different. In some sense, these dynamics aren't as consciously malevolent as some might assume. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Today, of course, the South continues to dominate American politics, and a very large number of important Senators and members of Congress get elected by mastering these racial dynamics—and are, as Glaser says, "constrained" by them. That in turn determines the course of national policy to a large degree. Bush is quickly finding that he can't just lurch to the mushy center and advocate $200 billion in welfare for a predominantly black city without alienating a good chunk of his base. Until now, the GOP's big-government conservatism has succeeded by remaining the sort of big-government conservatism the "Fuck You Boys" and "Fuck You Old Men" like to see: lots of spending on the military and drugs for middle-class white seniors, while slashing food stamps and housing vouchers—since we all "know" where those go. (They go, of course, mostly to poor whites, but myths die hard.) To imagine race has nothing to do with any of this seems, I think, pretty ludicrous.

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