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Magazine / Politics

The Racial Fault Line

Do minorities have too much influence in the political system? Perceptions vary widely by race.

Allies: From Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (with Martin Luther King Jr. looking on) to Barack Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party has been identified with minorities.(AFP/Getty Images)

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.”


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.

That sudden and wrenching shift destabilized the New Deal electoral alignment, which had divided the electorate primarily along class lines since the 1930s. During that long era, Democrats had dominated white voters in the South and competed effectively for them elsewhere, while Republicans had performed credibly among blacks. (Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, one of the most prominent black leaders of the time, was a Republican.) Even as late as 1964, Gallup polling showed that Johnson captured almost 60 percent of white votes in his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.

But Johnson’s loss of five Southern states to Goldwater was a harbinger of the new order. The initial fissure between Democrats and many whites over civil rights widened over an array of other racially infused wedge issues, such as school busing and affirmative action, and by the emergence of new social disputes, such as abortion rights and gun rights, that further divided the white electorate along cultural and religious lines. At the same time, working-class and older whites who had backed government activism during the New Deal era increasingly came to view most government programs as taking money from their pockets “to direct benefits towards the disproportionately black and Hispanic poor—benefits often seen as wasteful,” the Edsalls wrote.


As president, Bill Clinton sought to turn down the heat on the racially explosive disputes of the previous three decades.

From the 1960s through the ’80s, these powerful forces triggered mirror-image racial realignments of African-Americans to the Democratic Party and of conservative whites, especially but not exclusively in the South, to the Republican Party. That ideological and racial re-sorting of the electorate provided Republicans an advantage that allowed them to win the White House, often by landslide margins, in five of the six elections from 1968 to 1988. Since then, Democrats have reestablished their competitiveness in national elections, benefiting from both the steady increase in the minority population and a countertrend in which a growing number of white-collar white voters have moved toward the party, primarily because of social- and foreign-policy issues.

Even as the parties have returned to a more competitive balance, the basic racial realignment forged in the 1960s has also stabilized. No Democratic presidential candidate since Johnson has carried most whites, and no Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has even won more than 43 percent of their votes—a level reached only by Clinton in 1996 and Obama in 2008, according to exit polls. Clinton, in his two races, was the only Democrat after 1976 to hold Republicans to a single-digit advantage among whites, partially because independent candidate Ross Perot siphoned away some of them.

In turn, according to exit polls, no Republican presidential candidate after 1976 has won more than 12 percent of the African-American vote; during that period only Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004 won more than one-third of the Hispanic vote. In 2008, Obama won a combined 80 percent of the vote among all nonwhites, far outpacing his 43 percent showing among whites. Put another way: 40 percent of Obama’s total votes came from minorities while nearly 89 percent of John McCain’s support came from whites, according to the exit polls.


Racial divisions have grown just as deeply entrenched in congressional elections. The last time that Democrats won even half of the white vote in House races nationwide, according to exit polls, was 1992; since then, they won more than 46 percent of the white vote only in 2006. In 2010, Democrats hit a new low as exit polls showed Republicans carrying 60 percent of whites—their best showing in any congressional election in the history of modern polling. (Noncollege whites gave Republicans an even more emphatic 63 percent of their vote last year.) Over that same per­iod, Democrats have won at least 70 percent of minorities’ House votes in each congressional election, according to calculations from exit polls by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. In each of the past 10 congressional elections, Democrats’ share of the white vote has run at least 30 percentage points—and as high as 38 percentage points—behind their share of the minority vote.

Few analysts would be surprised to see at least as great a racial divide in the 2012 presidential election. Echoing results from many other pollsters, the latest Heartland Monitor survey found Obama’s approval rating stood at 75 percent among minorities and 43 percent among whites. And even that modest number among whites may reflect a temporary boost from the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Except for the period after the bin Laden raid, Obama’s approval rating among whites has been stuck at 40 percent or below almost every week over the past year in Gallup’s weekly average.


This stark and stable racial alignment formed the backdrop for the questions in the latest Heartland Monitor poll that asked Americans about the political influence of racial minorities. The survey, conducted by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of Financial Dynamics, a communications-strategy firm, surveyed 800 adults by landline telephone and 200 by cell phone from May 18 through May 22. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. In addition, the poll over-sampled African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans to allow for more-detailed examination of their views; the margin of error for those subgroups is larger. (For more on the survey, see “Race to the Top,” NJ, 6/4/11, p. 24.)

In one sense, the poll suggested a potential opening for Republicans in the substantial minority of nonwhite adults who believe that they have too little influence in the Democratic Party. About two-fifths of Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and African-Americans expressed that concern.

Michael Steele, an African-American and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, says that Republicans can use those results to persuade minority communities that Democrats are taking their votes for granted. “The reality of politics is, if you give me something for nothing, I am going to take it,” Steele said. Minorities “take themselves out of alignment politically by giving our vote so completely and so totally, with no guarantees in terms of outcomes, to the Democrats.”

Yet the survey underscores several obstacles that may prevent Republicans from converting that discontent into large numbers of minority votes. For one thing, minorities are much less likely than whites to subscribe to conservative arguments that government is more the problem than the solution to the nation’s challenges. Moreover, minorities say that the Republican Party excludes them to an even greater extent than the Democratic Party does. Sixty-four percent of African-Americans, 56 percent of Asian-Americans, and 55 percent of Hispanics said they have too little influence in the GOP. Even 40 percent of whites (including one-third of white Republicans) concurred.

Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-based GOP consultant who specializes in Hispanic outreach, says that those results should not surprise Republicans but should concern them. “I think the issues with the Republican Party are, first, one of perception—the fact that Republicans don’t put their Hispanic elected officials out there enough,” he said. “And, secondly, on the immigration issue, it’s a small minority of the party that has hijacked the party with its vitriol. Those are the two big challenges.”

Allan Bakke’s suit led to a land-mark ruling on affirmative action.

Steele argues that Republicans, despite electing a number of dynamic Hispanic candidates in 2010 such as Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, lack sufficient urgency about improving their performance with minority voters. “They are working under a 1990s model, and it’s an old model,” he lamented. Given the explosive pace of demographic change, which has swelled the minority share of the population past 37 percent and could raise its portion of the electorate to 28 percent or more in 2012, Steele says, “if Republicans are comfortable with the current situation, they are comfortable with becoming extinct.”

For Democrats, the survey spotlights a diametrical risk: the belief among a significant portion of whites that minorities exercise too much influence in their party. Only about one in 10 African-Americans and one in six Hispanics or Asian-Americans believe that minorities exert too much influence over the Democratic Party. But three in 10 whites consider minorities’ influence over the party to be excessive.


Those numbers rise considerably higher among certain groups of whites. Half of white Republicans believe that minorities possess too much influence over Democrats. So do 44 percent of college-educated white men and 42 percent of white seniors. The older the age cohort of whites, the more likely its members are to say that minorities are too influential in the Democratic Party; just 10 percent of whites under 30 accept that characterization.

A separate survey question asked respondents whether they believe that the rapid demographic change now under way is mostly beneficial for the country or mostly troubling; a 53 percent majority of whites picked the latter. Just under half of those troubled whites say that minorities have too much influence over the Democrats, compared with only one-sixth of whites who are comfortable with the change.

The survey documents how powerfully these attitudes about race intertwine with respondents’ perceptions about government, the trajectory of the American economy, and President Obama’s performance. In the poll, whites who believe that minorities have too much influence in the Democratic Party are much more likely than other whites to disapprove of Obama’s performance (79 percent of them do so); to express pessimism about the economy’s short-term prospects and the long-term opportunities for their children; to endorse the Reaganite sentiment that government is more the problem than the solution to our economic challenges (two-thirds expressed that view); and to back a conservative agenda of tax and spending cuts and deregulation as the best hope of jump-starting growth. On all of those issues, the larger group of whites in the survey who said that racial transformation is occurring too quickly also took more conservative positions than whites who said they are comfortable with the change. (See “Separate but Equal,” NJ, 6/4/11, p. 17.)

“If you look at the numbers [of whites] thinking minorities have too much influence in the Democratic Party, and look at where they are from a partisan standpoint and from a racial-aversion standpoint, I think there’s something there that is connecting them together,” says Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “Race still very much matters, although it’s different and it doesn’t look the same as it did.”


From the moment of Obama’s emergence as a national figure, party strategists and political scientists have debated the degree to which racial prejudice contributes to the resistance he has faced from whites. The evidence remains inconclusive. On one hand, Obama’s showing among whites in 2008 reached the upper end of Democratic presidential performance since 1976—although some might argue that, given the economy’s weakness, it was revealing that Obama didn’t win even more white votes. On the other hand, the fiery exhortations from the preponderantly white tea party movement to “take back” the country—and the somewhat overlapping “birther” movement among hard-core conservatives—carry strong overtones of racial anxiety, if not overt prejudice. And the latest Heartland Monitor survey clearly shows that whites who are uneasy about racial change also tend toward conservative views on other issues, particularly the role of government; race and ideology now appear to be reinforcing each other as powerfully as they have at any time since the early 1980s.


According to David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which specializes in issues facing African-Americans, the best evidence suggests that Obama hasn’t increased the number of white Americans who feel uneasy about growing diversity, but that his presidency has intensified the anxiety of those who do. “I have sensed … a certain desperation on the part of these … people, like, ‘The country is getting away from us, and we have to do something about it,’ ” Bositis said. “The reason why this is especially pronounced for older whites, when they think back to when they were younger, African-Americans and minorities had no power; they were nobody; they were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Now they are not invisible, and [these older whites] think they have more power than they do.”

Bositis argues that Obama’s problems with working-class and older whites are compounded by his elite pedigree as a product of Ivy League universities. Veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who conducted landmark work on the conservative realignment of working-class whites in Michigan’s Macomb County under Ronald Reagan, similarly believes that race now presents less of a risk to Obama among working-class whites than does their perception that most of what he has done to repair the economy since 2009 has benefited the same powerful interests, such as banks and the wealthy, that they believe broke it. “Those voters are perfectly capable of making a racial judgment about President Obama, but I think the [bigger] danger is that he is seen as part of the policy elite that has left working people behind in this while bailing out the irresponsible,” Greenberg said. “It seems to me more focused on elitism rather than race.”

Sister Souljah became a campaign issue in 1992 when Bill Clinton criticized her rap lyrics as antiwhite.

Yet the public response so far to Obama indicates that he is hardening the alignment of race and politics that he inherited. For whites and minorities alike, he presents a powerful symbol of both the overall racial transformation reshaping America and the rising prominence of minorities in the Democratic coalition. Given the growing population of nonwhites and Obama’s struggles among whites, it would not be surprising if minorities comprise an even larger share of the president’s vote in 2012 than the two-fifths they provided in 2008.

That would move Democrats one step closer to a potential milestone in which minorities provide most of their presidential votes, a tipping point that could shake the political landscape in unpredictable ways. Political scientists have long noted that Democrats often have the most difficulty winning white votes in the Deep South states with the largest black populations. Ideological factors affect that outcome, but according to Emory University’s Black, the pattern suggests that as minority influence grows in the Democratic Party in the South, that prominence alone may nudge more whites toward the GOP, just as minorities instinctively tilt away from a Republican Party now overwhelmingly dominated by whites.

It’s not clear that such a dynamic is developing at the national level. Democrats, after all, have improved their performance among well-educated whites since the 1980s. But the party is losing ground—at a rapid clip under Obama—among the segments of the white electorate most concerned about racial change, such as blue-collar and older whites. At least with some of those voters, Democrats may face the risk of getting caught nationally on the same treadmill that has hurt the party in much of the South: As demographic change translates into more minority votes, those very gains may prompt further losses among whites.

“It’s certainly not happening to the same extent nationwide,” Black said. “But it could have an effect like that…. We don’t know what the white reaction is going to be if the Democratic Party across the whole United States becomes dominated by nonwhites.”

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