In this year’s Republican primaries, even states with the largest black populations have registered only 1 to 2 percent black voter participation. And despite the GOP’s hope that it could peel away minority voters who agree with them on social issues, Barack Obama enjoys approval ratings in the high 80s among black voters and retains strong support from Latinos when matched up against his Republican rivals.
Yet the conservative base seems stubbornly resistant to change, and to quote Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. Thus, even many moderate and mainstream conservatives are forced to politely clear their throats and look away from all but the most egregious examples of racism among their allies. Without them, they wouldn’t have the votes to win elections.
The right is clearly sensitive to this issue, or it wouldn’t be so bashful when the Derbyshires of the world let their fig leaves drop. But instead of addressing these internal tensions, it tries to turn the tables by accusing progressives of “playing the race card” (i.e. mentioning that racism exists). As Alex Pareene wryly noted, many conservatives seem to operate under the assumption that “accusations of racism are the new racism, and said accusations are invariably politically motivated.”
This tendency has been on full display in the case of Trayvon Martin, from labeling President Obama a “race hustler” for extending his sympathies to Martin’s family to the Free-Beacon’s blunt headline, “Registered Dem Killed Trayvon.” Sure, George Zimmerman shot a 17-year-old boy to death, but the real question on everyone’s mind was who he voted for.
While these attempts to turn racism into a partisan issue might help to assuage some guilty consciences, the results are ultimately bad for both conservatives themselves and the country as a whole. The need to keep the racist fringe mollified means that once Republicans are in power, they inevitably set to work implementing discriminatory and divisive laws like the ones mentioned above – even, as my colleagues Bryce Covert and Mike Konczal have pointed out, when their electoral sales pitch is based on promises of fiscal discipline and economic recovery.
This also has consequences for their attempts to broaden their base. It’s no shock that outreach toward Latinos has failed when 91 percent of them want progressive immigration reform like the DREAM Act yet it can barely garner single-digit support among congressional Republicans. And on a broader level, it’s impossible to seriously discuss or redress racial inequality and injustice if someone keeps changing the subject.
Some progressives might be tempted to say, “So what? Aren’t we trying to discredit conservatives anyway? Let’s just sit back and watch the train wreck.” But in truth, the inability of the conservative movement to escape the racist albatross around its neck is bad for progressives, too. If we’re to be measured by the quality of our opponents, what does it say about us if we win because the other guys got caught e-mailing each other Photoshops of Barack Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose?
There’s no reason for progressives to push ourselves to strengthen our arguments or develop bold new solutions to seemingly intractable problems unless there’s an equally powerful, credible, and clear-minded counter-force. Besides, in a two-party system, the other side is going to take the reins of power at least some of the time. When that happens, we want them to be people we can debate in good faith.
This sad state of affairs wasn’t inevitable. For a brief moment, Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 seemed to signal a sea change in America’s eternally fraught racial politics. The last, greatest barrier had been surmounted and a new generation, unburdened by the prejudices of the past, had risen to power, ready to tackle the big issues and debate the questions that really mattered. But the idea of Obama being a “post-racial” president soon degenerated into a punch line as many Republicans, terrified of the new president’s broad appeal, gave in to their darkest impulses.
The most high-profile and embarrassing of these efforts was the attempt to cast doubt on Obama’s birth records, which culminated with Donald Trump beclowning himself by basing his entire presidential campaign around an easily debunked conspiracy theory. (Oddly, Trump was not asked to produce any documentation to explain what part of the planet Earth produces vividly orange people with gossamer hair.) Instead of putting the last nail in racism’s coffin, Obama’s historic triumph brought the cranks out of the woodwork, spooked by a premonition of their demise.
But all hope is not lost just because some conservatives continue to write clueless op-eds about how white privilege doesn’t exist because someone who may or may not have been black may or may not have stolen a bike. Even if electoral concerns make the right hesitant to repudiate and cut ties with its more retrograde allies for now, it remains a demographic reality, as Jonathan Chait has written, that the current conservative coalition must either change or die – and conservatives are nothing if not resilient. And if conservatives do manage to join the 21st century and start winning over minority groups, it will mean that elected Democrats will actually have to start working for their votes again.
As Bryce Covert has written, “once we find ways to get our representatives to truly represent the diversity of our people, more Sarah Palins and Herman Cains will be a good sign. Progressives won’t have to vote for them, but we’ll know that they come with the territory of greater equality.” Once that happens, and once conservatives start proactively challenging racism in their ranks instead of shouting “I’m rubber; you’re glue!” when called on it, maybe we can finally have an adult conversation about race and move forward as a united country.
This post was originally published by the Roosevelt Institute.
Photo from escapedtowisconsin via flickr
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