Like a lightning flash in a stormy sky, the Trayvon Martin case has illuminated the depth of the impasse between white and nonwhite America. But a similar dynamic looms less visibly behind Washington's standoff between a Democratic coalition that relies on overwhelming support from minorities and a Republican coalition still almost entirely dependent on the votes of whites, especially older ones.
Both developments tell the same challenging story: Even as America experiences its most profound demographic change in more than a century, our society is increasingly fracturing along overlapping racial, generational, and partisan lines. The diversity remaking America could be a source of rejuvenation and innovation, but today it is reinforcing our ferocious partisan polarization. The Martin case and the Washington stalemate both capture the escalating collision of perspectives and priorities between a growing, mostly younger minority community and our aging white population—what I've called the brown and the gray.
The Martin case frames these tensions most obviously. The courtroom drama provided a dispiriting bookend to the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995. In that earlier case, most whites concluded that racial solidarity led a predominantly black jury to acquit the African-American football legend of the murder of his white ex-wife and her friend, despite powerful evidence of his guilt. This time, polls show an overwhelming majority of African-Americans believe a predominantly white jury unfairly acquitted George Zimmerman even though no one disputes that he shot an unarmed black teenager. With each verdict, huge numbers of Americans concluded that racial identity trumped justice.
Large social judgments always shoehorn uneasily into specific criminal cases, and evidence on the most basic questions in the Zimmerman-Martin confrontation were elusive enough that the jury's verdict is understandable. Moreover, race didn't figure as directly into the Martin trial as it did in Simpson's (in which his defense attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, explicitly directed his closing argument at blacks' sense that the criminal-justice system is biased against them). But the Zimmerman verdict has again demonstrated a durable racial divide in attitudes about law enforcement.
ABC/Washington Post and Pew Research Center polls each found that whites, by a substantial margin, thought the Zimmerman verdict was fair, while nearly nine in 10 African-Americans and about three in five Hispanics considered it unfair. More broadly, in the ABC/Post poll, roughly the same number of African-Americans and Hispanics thought the criminal-justice system discriminates against minorities, while only 41 percent of whites agreed.
Those responses tracked the long-standing trend in which minorities remain more likely than whites to see lingering prejudice in many settings. Hardly anyone denies that over the past generation America has dismantled many personal and institutional racial barriers. In a 2012 National Journal poll, solid majorities of African-Americans and Hispanics said they had more friends of other races than their parents did. On several key measures, such as life expectancy and high school graduation rates, racial gaps have narrowed meaningfully.
And yet, as the liberal Center for American Progress noted in All-In Nation, a book on America's demographic transformation it released this week, huge racial divergences endure on other fronts—from family wealth and employment to incarceration rates and access to elite colleges. As Lawrence Summers, formerly Obama's top economic adviser, writes, "Even as overt and explicit discrimination has become less common, pernicious racial disparities have persisted. As a result, it continues to be especially hard for people of color to achieve economic security, let alone prosperity."
As stubborn as these disparities is the divide over how to alleviate them. Reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision on the University of Texas's admission system reaffirmed the conflict between whites and minorities over affirmative-action programs that provide preferences to minorities. The CAP report reflects a beneficial generational shift in liberal thinking by downplaying such programs in favor of race-neutral initiatives, such as universal preschool, intended to expand opportunities for all lower-income Americans. Yet that program, like President Obama's agenda, still requires an activist role for Washington.
Although the contrasting attitudes about law enforcement ignite more sparks, that question of Washington's proper role now represents the most important racial divide in American life. Minorities preponderantly support government investment in education, training, and health care that they consider essential for upward mobility. Most whites, particularly blue-collar and older whites, now resist spending on almost anything except Social Security and Medicare.
This clash rings through the collision between Obama (who won twice behind a coalition of nonwhites and the minority of whites generally open to activist government) and House Republicans (four-fifths of whom represent districts more white than the national average). In their unwavering opposition to Obama on issues from health to immigration, House Republicans are systematically blockading the priorities of the diverse (and growing) majority coalition that reelected him. Without more persuasive alternatives, Republicans risk convincing these emerging communities that their implacable opposition represents a "stand-your-ground" white resistance to minorities' own rise. In the meantime, a rapidly diversifying America risks a future of hardening disparities and enmities if it cannot forge more transracial consensus in the courts—or in Congress.