Is the Republican Party Racist?

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 8 2012 3:50 AM

Is the Republican Party Racist?

It depends on race-baiting tactics and the votes of former Confederate states.

The Confederate flag atop the capitol building in South Carolina
The U.S. flag (top), the state flag of South Carolina (middle) and the Confederate flag (bottom) fly atop the capitol building in April 2000 in Columbia, S.C.

Photograph by Erik Perel/Getty Images.

Now that Romney supporters have sought to make race, once again, an issue against Obama with an "explosive" five-year-old video reminding voters that Obama (yes, it's true!) consorts with black people, perhaps it's time to remind people of the real reason Romney deserves rejection at the polls in November: He is the candidate of the neo-racist Republican Party.

“Neo-racist” seem a little pointed? OK, how about “structurally racist”? I bring up the matter in part because it relates to the discussion lately about how journalism must do more than present false equivalency, treating the two sides of any debate as though they are equally valid. Journalism-watchers have been indulging in a fair bit of self-congratulatory rhetoric about how now journalism is all about the TRUTH behind any debate, as if discovering the truth was always something easy to do on deadline, often without sufficient expertise.

Those who dismiss “he said, she said” journalism—the tendency to present both sides of any story without judgment—make the arrogant assumption that they can do better, present the truth, the absolute truth on any given contested issue.

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But is this true? Is this always possible?

I present, as a test case, the issue of whether the Republican Party should be identified as a “neo-racist” entity. Could the press present this judgment as a fact? Let’s conduct a kind of thought experiment about how far the press should go in declaring that a matter’s factuality has been decided.

I remember being seated next to Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia Journalism School, at some dinner and discussing J-school attitudes toward the question of truth. (I’d taught a few writing seminars at Columbia.) And hearing Lemann saying something important that the bold journalism truthers neglect: that the hardest thing to teach J-school students was to “report the debates.”

Report the debates! Not to declare truths as if bearing them down on stone tablets from Sinai, but to clarify and sharpen the questions, investigate the hidden agendas, the underlying theories, the potential consequences of each side of a contested issue. Without necessarily declaring a winner.

And thus the real task, ignored by the anti-“he said/she said” crowd, is to decide which issues are valid debates. Because I agree there are some truths that are beyond debate, though not as many as established and obvious as the anti-“he/said she said”-types seem to think. I think most would agree that the 9/11 “truthers” and the Obama “birthers” do not merit any further debate; the facts are in. We can declare the believers deluded.

On the other hand, take drone strikes. I’ve argued here that because of the risk they pose to civilians they are, in most cases, by most interpretations of the internationally recognized Laws of Armed Conflict, war crimes. But I can see there are arguments against this, even from liberals, and I don’t think the question is so settled that journalists should be required to identify the president, the secretary of defense and the director of the CIA as war criminals every time they’re mentioned.

I’ve spent some time putting “truth” claims and false equivalencies in perspective because I want to test the theory that there is one truth in political discourse that the media has almost entirely failed to recognize or fears to utter, one at the heart of presidential campaign reporting: The Republican Party is an institutionally, structurally racist entity. It’s the veritable elephant in the room of campaign coverage.

No, I’m not saying all Republicans are racist. I’m saying that as a party, ever since Goldwater and Nixon concocted the benighted, openly racist “Southern Strategy” in the ’60s, the Republican Party has profited from overt and covert racism.

The Southern Strategy was designed to capitalize on Southern white resentment of court-enforced busing to end school desegregation, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's prohibition of discrimination in interstate commerce, of enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent historically racist Southern counties and states from discriminating against blacks who sought to exercise their right to vote where once they'd been effectively barred. By playing on these issues, Nixon and other Republicans of this era won many traditionally Democratic votes in the South. Later, GOP opposition to affirmative action, race-based hiring "quotas" and all other methods of compensating for the debilitating legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation fed into what was one of the momentous shifts, a total turnaround in just more than a decade (1970 to 1984) from a solidly Democratic South to a solidly Republican one.

A new book about Strom Thurmond, the openly racist senator from South Carolina (he ran as a "Dixiecrat" against Truman in 1948) details how Thurmond's switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 1964 was the harbinger and instigator for that shift to a solidly Republican South. Eventually the party became somewhat less overt in its public statements but not in its appeal at the voting booth.

Which means in practice that the GOP starts out every presidential election with (depending on census changes in electoral vote numbers) some 100 electoral votes, more than a third of the way to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Is it an accident that these 100 votes come from the core states of the Old Confederacy—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina?

Looked at another way, as things stand, there would be no presidential "race" at the moment if it weren't for those ex-confederate states—even if they split their votes. Mitt Romney would have little or no chance of winning and might as well quit the race now. Nor would the GOP have much chance of re-taking the Senate or even winning the House again. They would be dead as a political party if not for the legacy of racism. I think that's a fact. Do you think it's "he said/she said"?

That doesn’t mean that all Southern whites vote GOP only because of race. But when I checked in with the careful historian of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Rick Perlstein, author of books on the Goldwater and Nixon phenomena, he suggested that recent research has demonstrated that racial attitudes—as opposed to mere conservatism on other policy issues—determine Republican votes in the South.

He referred me to a book by Thomas Schaller, called Whistling Past Dixie, in which Schaller cites sophisticated polling studies of Southern voters. Perlstein has explained his regard for Schaller’s book:

Schaller builds this conclusion on one of the most impressive papers in recent political science, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South," by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. Running regressions on a massive data set of ideological opinions, Sears and Valentino demonstrate with precision that for example, a white Southern man who calls himself a "conservative," controlling for racial attitudes, is no less likely to chance a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate than a Northerner who calls himself a conservative. Likewise, a pro-life or hawkish Southern white man is no less likely—again controlling for racial attitudes—than a pro-life or hawkish Northerner to vote for the Democrat. But, on the other hand, when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions (such as whether one agrees "If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites," or choosing whether blacks are "lazy" or "hardworking"), an untoward result jumps out: white Southerners are twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Schaller writes: "Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters … the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past."

At the very least these patterns make Southern voters susceptible to what some observers have called "dog whistle" appeals to racism, such as Mitt Romney's false claim in campaign ads that Obama had "gutted" welfare reform work requirements, reminding many of Reagan-era attacks on "welfare queens" in Cadillacs.

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