The Agenda

Brief Thought on How Racism and Political Affiliation Intersect

Recently, Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s UP with Chris Hayes, made the following observation:

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

Chris is a good friend of mine, and we grew up in the same milieu. I can attest to the fact that the view he expressed is very widely held in the circles in which we both travel. Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution, who drew my attention to Chris’s observation, offered a reply that collects data on racial attitudes and partisan affiliation, and he ends on the following note: 

It is true that there are more differences across party lines on policy questions such as on affirmative action, again with a mix in both parties but with more Republicans than Democrats opposing. I don’t consider these types of policy preferences to be grounds for calling someone a racist, however.

It is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties. No party has a monopoly on racists.

The political scientist John Sides has written a post on the same theme, and he draws a somewhat different conclusion that nevertheless firmly rejects the notion that racists are almost entirely in one coalition:

This graph shows that identification with the Democratic Party tends to decline, and identification with the Republican party tends to increase, as attitudes toward black become less favorable—at least when attitudes are measured with two different racial stereotypes. However, the relationship is far from deterministic: substantial minorities of those with unfavorable attitudes toward blacks identify as Democrats. (The 60% identifying Democratic among those who rated blacks most unfavorably on the intelligence scale should be treated with caution, as there were only 15 people who gave this rating.)

In sum, I don’t think Tabarrok is technically correct to say that “racists are split evenly between the two parties.” At least by these measures, the split is not exactly even. But he is absolutely correct to say that neither party has a monopoly on racists.

One thing I found interesting about this conversation so far is the shared emphasis on the attitudes of non-blacks towards blacks. This makes a great deal of sense given the centrality of black/non-black conflict in U.S. history, yet the changing demographic composition of the U.S. population, and the changing cultural landscape, has given rise to other intercultural frictions, e.g., between non-Latino black Americans and Latinos, between non-Asians and Asians, etc. As we take into account these other forms of prejudice, one assumes that a very complex picture would emerge. Yet the legitimacy or importance of these other forms of prejudice is not taken as seriously as perhaps it should be. 

My guess is that Chris would concede the points raised by Alex and John Sides, and I’m hesitant to attribute too much to an offhand remark. I will say, however, that for many of the people “in my world” — that is, professionals who attended selective colleges and universities in the English-speaking world — the notion that racist Americans are almost entirely in one coalition (the center-right coalition) is an article of faith that is really central to center-left political identity. Those of us who do not share this view thus find ourselves arguing from a position that is seen as intrinsically morally suspect. 

P.S. Robert VerBruggen has written on racism and partisan affiliation on a number of occasions. His post on racial resentment from May of last year is particularly insightful.

P.P.S. Razib Khan offers a framework for understanding how the idea of racism is deployed in our politics: 

What I think is going on with Hayes’ assertion is similar to what’s going on with social conservatives who talk about “pro-family” views and attitudes. Very few liberals are “anti-family” (though some Leftist radials arguably are, insofar as they want to overturn normative understandings of the American family). And yet similarly very few conservatives are “pro-racism.” Rather, the terms have become implicit code among conservatives and liberals for opinions on a wide range of family and race related issues. Even if conservatives don’t live the pro-family agenda (e.g., Newt Gingrich), they believe in it. Similarly, even if white liberals live among, socialize, and marry, other white liberals, they believe in a particular vision of race relations. More concretely, conservatives who label themselves pro-family support a suite of policies which they presume support the values of families, even if their own families are a shambles. Liberals who oppose racism in Vermont or rural Oregon do so through their support for particular policies which they believe foster national racial equality.

That is, symbolism and affect matter a great deal. 


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