Names such as Willie Horton, Sister Souljah, and Allan Bakke now sound as distant as Duran Duran and Miami Vice.
Horton, Souljah, and Bakke once symbolized the searing prominence of race in American politics: Horton as a convicted murderer whose Massachusetts furlough became a powerful target for George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign; Souljah as a rapper whom Bill Clinton criticized in 1992 for seeming to advocate violence against whites; Bakke as a white medical student at the fulcrum of a seminal Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in 1978.
In the first decades after the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s, American politics regularly produced racially explosive disputes of the sort that briefly made Horton, Souljah, and Bakke household names. In those years, many of the two parties’ most incendiary confrontations revolved around issues that directly inflamed racial tensions. School busing, affirmative action, welfare, and crime all fell into that category.
None of those issues is nearly as combustible today, partly because of Clinton’s systematic efforts in the 1990s to douse their flames. Compared with the 1970s and ’80s, American politics generates much less overtly racial sparring and far fewer figures who become polarizing touchstones of racial tension.
And yet, race remains a central fault line in American politics. Huge gaps still routinely separate the preferences of whites and minorities, not only in voting behavior but also in basic attitudes about the role of government. The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey shows, moreover, that the two demographic groups diverge in their perspectives on an equally fundamental issue: whether the nation’s rapidly growing minority population has too much, too little, or the right amount of influence in the political system.
In the survey, released earlier this month, majorities of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans all said that minorities exert too little influence on the political process; fewer than one-fourth of whites agreed. Meanwhile, a quarter of whites said that minorities exert too much influence—a position shared by only about one in 10 adults from all three of the principal minority groups.
The poll unearthed an even more telling contrast when it asked respondents to assess minorities’ influence over the two major political parties. Majorities of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans all said that minorities have too little influence over the Republican Party, and roughly two-fifths in each group also said they have too little influence in the Democratic Party. But nearly one-third of whites said that minorities have too much influence over the Democratic Party—a figure that rises substantially higher among white Republicans, white seniors, and whites who said they were troubled by the overall pace of the nation’s demographic change.
These contrasting perspectives hint at some of the pressures that both parties will face as they navigate an increasingly complex racial and ethnic landscape. With the exception of immigration reform, the racially tinged debates that rattled American politics from the 1960s through the 1990s were predominantly binary disputes between whites and blacks. Today’s racial politics are more intricate, involving not only differences between whites and nonwhites but also diverging perspectives and occasionally colliding interests among blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.
And yet, at its core, the new dynamic of racial politics revolves around a single inescapable, and irreversible, fact: As the nation grows more diverse, white voters’ ability to determine the outcome of elections and the distribution of political power is diminishing. Over the decades to come, the contours of American politics will flow from the way a number of groups—the declining (but still substantial) white majority; the growing Hispanic and Asian minorities; the black community, in which many feel squeezed between those two massive blocs; and the two parties themselves—adapt to that powerful current. “Historically, white majorities have governed in America,” says Emory University professor Merle Black, who has written extensively on race and politics. “And what we’re really talking about is whether white majorities are going to govern in the future. It’s a very different ball game—a very different America.”
A WRENCHING SHIFT
The basic racial alignment of modern American politics was forged during the civil-rights era. As journalists Thomas and Mary Edsall wrote in their classic 1991 book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, “Before 1964, opinion polls show virtually no difference between the public perception of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party on race-related issues.” But the leading role that Democratic President Johnson played in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—notwithstanding the resistance of conservative Southern Democrats and the support of moderate Northern Republicans in Congress—dramatically and abruptly transformed the image of the parties. By 1968, polls show that most Americans clearly saw the Democrats as promoting federal activism on civil rights and the Republicans as resisting it.
This article appears in the June 25, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.