Given that we have a black president, and some of his supporters have conveniently discovered that criticizing him is tantamount to racism, it’s hardly surprising that I’m responding to an article — in a mainstream publication, no less — entitled “Is the Republican Party Racist?”
Why is it that the left is so obsessed with the spectacle of Republican racism? Is it unease with a dark racial history, from the social tensions and racial violence in the North to the governmental Jim Crow activism of progressive Democrats in the Wilson administration? Is it the compulsion to rationalize the atrophic effects of welfare and other leftist policy on black families, or that minorities are more likely to have jobs, live in better-off neighborhoods and attend better-performing schools in the Sun Belt than in the Frost Belt? Or does this obsession spring from simple, unbridled contempt for the dissidents who give the lie to the left’s hallowed illusions? Whatever the reasons, the accusation is worth addressing head on.
So let’s talk about history.
The tale of Republicans and Democrats swapping philosophies or constituencies immediately after the civil rights movement is, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, more mythology than fact. Ike captured four states from the former Confederacy (six, if you include bellwether Missouri and reliably conservative Oklahoma) in 1952 — before Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board, or the Southern Strategy. The 1952 GOP platform for Eisenhower-Nixon included a civil rights plank that condemned “bigots who inject class, racial and religious prejudice into public and political matters”; opposed “discrimination against race, religion or national origin”; and supported federal “action toward the elimination of” lynching, poll taxes, and segregation in D.C. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10479, creating the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, to enforce equal employment opportunity against discrimination within the federal government. He won half of Dixie in 1956.
For all the talk of Richard Nixon’s racist strategy (some of which was probably warranted), the 1968 Republican platform specifically mentions “the black community, the Mexican-American, the American Indian [who] suffer disproportionately” in inner cities (this being the era of “white flight”) and then goes on to list proposals for cleaning up those cities. (All of which may have contributed to his losing much of the then-recalcitrant Deep South to Wallace.) Granted, none of this helped him win the black or Hispanic vote in the face of the Democratic Party championing civil rights legislation (overwhelming Republican support, notwithstanding) and having put Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. But it’s worth remembering that the only black U.S. senator at the time was a Republican.
In office, President Nixon’s conservative approach to integration brought the percentage of Southern blacks in all-black schools down from 70% to 18%, as he strengthened anti-discriminatory laws, increased funding for civil rights enforcement, and developed minority business initiatives. (I should note that some liberals are curiously inclined to see this as some sort of closet progressivism in the Nixon administration, but that’s another discussion.) Nixon enacted “the most far-reaching federal expansion of affirmative action” in American history in 1969 and 1970. And he won Dixie, and most of the country, in 1972.
Democrat Jimmy “the time for racial discrimination is over” Carter nearly swept the South in 1976 (he narrowly lost Virginia), while losing most of New England and the bulk of the West en route to a narrow victory overall. Likewise, Republican presidents weren’t shut out in the Northeast and California until 1992. Presumably, all those Yankees weren’t just palling around with racists until Bill Clinton (and another bad economy) came along with his charming liberal drawl.
To be sure, there was plenty of active racism in the South (and elsewhere in America) in the ’60s and ’70s, and varying degrees of subtle racism persisted afterward. Moreover, there are racist Republicans today, some of whom get elected to public office. There are also racist Democrats today. Some of them get elected to public office. But the question here is whether racial dynamics meaningfully define Republican policy or electoral success.
As ingrained as the racial narrative may be in certain quarters, the evidence admits of greater nuance. At the risk of inviting neo-Confederate aspersions, let’s consider economics (which usually factor so strongly in liberal worldviews):
[T]he shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth. In the postwar era, they note, the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party that best represented its economic interests: the G.O.P. Working-class whites, however — and here’s the surprise — even those in areas with large black populations, stayed loyal to the Democrats. (This was true until the 90s, when the nation as a whole turned rightward in Congressional voting.) [My emphasis]
The two scholars support their claim with an extensive survey of election returns and voter surveys. To give just one example: in the 50s, among Southerners in the low-income tercile, 43 percent voted for Republican Presidential candidates, while in the high-income tercile, 53 percent voted Republican; by the 80s, those figures were 51 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Wealthy Southerners shifted rightward in droves but poorer ones didn’t.
To be sure, Shafer says, many whites in the South aggressively opposed liberal Democrats on race issues. “But when folks went to the polling booths,” he says, “they didn’t shoot off their own toes. They voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences.”
Racists, just like everyone else, vote their interests. If Woodrow Wilson could find time in his progressive agenda of segregating the federal government to wage a Great War, promote human rights, and launch the precursors to the U.N., then presumably more modern racists can walk and chew gum. Thus it is unsurprising that racists do not, in fact, strongly favor any one party. There may be reason to suspect negative impressions of minorities might correlate somewhat with Republican voting habits (we will ignore, for simplicity’s sake, the question of racial friction from and between minorities), but that is a far cry from demonstrating the persistence of a “Grand Racist Party” that owes its electoral success and philosophical direction to ethnic antagonisms.
If the Republican Party isn’t racist and doesn’t rely on the racism of its constituents for electoral success or philosophical direction, then how do we explain the chasm of opinion and perspective between left and right?
The GOP has historically been the party of classical liberalism based in individual liberty — the bedrock of modern American conservatism. As such, themes like self-reliance, economic freedom, and equality before the law have been integral to Republican philosophy since the days of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In the past, these principles manifested in opposition to slavery and bigotry. More recently, they serve to check the engineering hands of an expansive welfare state and to ensure that government programs don’t become a hand down to ruin. The Republican Party is, as Lincoln put it, “for both the man and the dollar,” and its focus is on securing a robust economy.
By contrast, you may have noticed that the 2012 Democratic National Convention placed something of a premium on social issues. References to abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and immigration permeated the show as the Democratic Party wanted to remind and impress upon you that the Republicans are on the wrong side of history, demographics, and the uncanny valley of human–robot relations. By extension, you are to understand that proposals from the evil, benighted right to resolve our national fiscal troubles cannot possibly be good for anybody who isn’t rich, white, male, and heterosexual.
As such, a recurring theme on the left is that any attempts to reform or criticize welfare are to be dismissed as “dog whistles” for racist conservatives (but somehow are only heard by liberals). Yet, whatever one thinks about the rhetorical criticisms of welfare, the bipartisan Clinton-Republican reform of 1996 transformed a disastrous policy into an approach that saw minority poverty reach superlatively low levels in the 2000s. In fact, blacks and Hispanics were less impoverished in 2010 and 2011, despite the Great Recession, than in pre-reform 1995. (By comparison, overall poverty in the Obama years reached the highest levels in 20 years.) This development is particularly incredible given that America has seen the highest black unemployment in decades — roughly double white unemployment — under Barack Obama’s governance.
Yet we are told the reformers are racist.
Even education reform gets racially coded. In the wake of the Tea Party Revolution of 2010, The Washington Post ran a widely circulated article by Stephanie McCrummen entitled, “Republican school board in N.C. backed by tea party abolishes integration policy.” Most of the first two pages extol diversity, inclusivity, and affordability in “one of the nation’s most celebrated integration efforts.” Meanwhile, the “new majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives” gets juxtaposed with “a 21st-century case for segregation” and an obligatory mention of Brown v. Board. (Did I mention this is in Dixie? You know, where minorities are miserable and oppressed.)
The benefits of the program were dubious at best — schools were increasingly overcrowded, most black and Latino students were not proficient in reading or math, and only 54% of poor kids were graduating. As a biracial mother of two Wake County students put it, “right now, it’s as if the best we can do is dilute these kids out so they don’t cause problems. It sickens me.”
Even the Republicans-abolish-integration article inadvertently makes a case for what Paul Fitts, a Republican candidate for Wake County Commissioner, would describe as achievement-oriented schools grounded in communal involvement. Namely, qualified poor and/or minority students were under-enrolled in advanced math classes under the previous “integration” policy. The kicker: school officials say they’ve known about this problem for years, but many parents were left in the dark. In other words, sending kids to faraway schools stifles parental involvement and allows ongoing systemic problems to fester under the negligent eyes of self-interested bureaucrats.
But lest you think McCrummen was building to a more balanced analysis, her article ends shortly after ruminating on “irony in the possible balkanization of the county’s schools at a time when society is becoming more interconnected than ever.” Thus she joins the good company of liberal media that reflexively deride conservative concern for actual problems as racism.
Of course, the discussion of dog whistles and identity politics extends far beyond welfare and education reform:
The virtually white, wildly enthusiastic throng that lined Reagan’s motorcade route waved Confederate and American flags. Reagan didn’t disappoint them. He punched all the familiar code attack themes, big government, liberals, welfare, and law and order. He punctuated his blast with the ringing declaration, “I believe in states’ rights.”
Romney and Ryan can’t openly espouse states’ rights as Reagan did. But they update the code themes by lambasting Democrats, wasteful big government, runaway deficit spending on entitlement programs, and their full blown assaults on so-called Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security programs, and labor unions.” [My emphasis]
I cannot fathom how we are supposed to have a productive conversation when just about every legitimate issue on the table is declared criminally unsubtle “code” for the resurrection of Jim Crow. But it’s a truism now that racism is an exclusively conservative phenomenon. Hence, Joe Biden telling a black audience in the South that Republicans will “put y’all back in chains” is definitely not race-baiting. However, Mitt Romney responding to this charge — and the president’s allies claiming Romney is a felon who caused a woman to die of cancer — by saying, “Take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago,” is tantamount to “niggerization.” But an ad portraying a black man punching out white women has no racist or sexist undertones whatsoever, as the ad’s target is a Republican.
President Obama ascended to office on a wave of uproarious optimism, heralding a syncretic revolution of reconciliation and growth. There was much soaring rhetoric about a post-racial America where our leaders would be statesmen and our politics would be unitive, ennobling, and transparent. We were told there was plenty of hope — an infinite amount! — and it was all for us. Yet here we are, bitterly mucking through the dregs of old antagonisms, as the president’s allies conquer an empire of division with an army of lies.
In 2007, then-Senator Obama addressed a black audience in Virginia with a decidedly uncharacteristic accent. Whether you would describe the affected patois as “Southern” or “African-American vernacular,” you might wonder how it arose in a man raised by white Midwesterners in the multicultural milieus of the Pacific. In this peculiar vernacular, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois forcefully implicates racism in the government’s disappointing response to Hurricane Katrina, including some opposition to a Stafford Act waiver. Cue shock and indignation on the right; eye-rolling and dismissal on the left — everybody accuses everybody of race-baiting. Not that any of this is new.
To the annoyance of conservatives, Obama condemned opposition to the Stafford Act waiver for New Orleans while himself voting — as part of a super-minority — for the situation he lambasted. I’ll grant that he prioritized ending the Iraq War over relief for New Orleans families, but 80 of his Senate colleagues chose to vote for that relief. More to the point, the effort did not want for funding. More money was spent rebuilding New Orleans than for Hurricane Andrew — one of the costliest storms in history — and 9/11 combined. If anything, the city is on track to becoming safer, more sustainable, and economically stronger than it was before Katrina.
So why all the fuss over government racism — which Obama has since disavowed? I don’t believe for a second that the president is a racist. Like me, he grew up well-supported in an ethnically diverse world, and he went on to enjoy international friends and interracial romances. Thus, this cynical 2007 episode would read as yet another chapter in the amusing political history of Sudden Onset Southernism but for the subsequent events of the 2008 Democratic primary.
Obama needed to win South Carolina in order to capitalize on momentum from Iowa. Hillary Clinton had been substantially more popular among black voters, who comprise a lion’s share of the Democratic electorate, and Obama needed a strategy to secure them and white liberals. Thus, succored by a gleefully tendentious national media (led by MSNBC and The New York Times), Obama and his allies began to discover racism everywhere. From Hillary’s praise of civil rights legislation to Bill’s electoral comparison that didn’t upset Jesse Jackson to the willfully misrepresented “fairy tale” comment about opposition to the Iraq War, the friends of Obama ensured that any remarks critical of him were inexorably tied to racism. Thereafter, the senator from Illinois began to lock up the black vote from South Carolina onward. But the campaign was far from over.
Not satisfied with merely slandering the Clintons, Obama’s network targeted Hillary’s black supporters in a concerted effort to “pester, intimidate, [and] question [their] blackness.” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri was pointedly accused, by a sitting U.S. congressman, of conspiring to obstruct history by preventing the election of the first black president; others, including Trenton’s first black mayor Doug Palmer, were publicly threatened with primary challenges for standing by their beliefs. So deep were the primary scars on a campaign whose top officials were black women, that when John McCain’s campaign later criticized the future president for playing the race card, the Clintons and their diverse supporters — who were campaigning for the Democratic ticket — were silent.
The racism charges only stick when wielded against Obama’s opponents. So when Geraldine Ferraro said that Obama benefited from being a black man — instead of a white man or a woman of any color — at a time when the country would celebrate this, she faced ongoing derision, and the Obama camp demanded she step down from the Clinton campaign. By contrast, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid noted that Obama would benefit from being a “light-skinned” black man “with no Negro dialect” at a time when the country would celebrate this, the president quickly forgave him, and the media followed suit.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that the rise of the Tea Party and the resurgence of economic conservatism have been doggedly plagued by persistent charges of social antagonism. Saddled with the weight of corporate bailouts, failed stimulus, imploding entitlements, and exploding deficits, the American people have demanded change, and the left — from the administration to the media — has cried racism. Now that President Obama is in danger of losing re-election, the media is once again promulgating stories of Republican racism. These incidents are certainly despicable. And it should go without saying that they are no more representative of the GOP than liberal shenanigans are of the Democratic Party. But instead, we’re to the point where a conservative can’t even be indignant over attacks on his father without being derided for racial privilege, even as the president dismisses Mitt Romney as an alien.
I’m not interested in squabbling over the fringe agendas of extremists and the gaffe-prone in either party’s coalition. Nor do I care to suffer ostensibly serious people sifting endlessly through otherwise reasonable statements for hints of coded bigotry. Like most Americans, I want leadership that will right this ship of state and put us firmly on the course of progress and recovery. Indeed, the president beckons us to move forward, and that sounds like a wonderful idea.
I hope he looks forward to retirement. I hope, someday, my generation will, too.
This article is an adaptation of a series that originally appeared on Token Dissonance.
Anthony Rek LeCounte is a Yale-educated conservative who wants the kind of bold, innovative, pro-growth governance that Barack Obama forgot about three years ago. He blogs at Token Dissonance.