The race problem nobody wants to talk about

How much has changed?
How much has changed?

By Alan Bean

The Democratic Party suffered an embarrassing defeat on November 4th, largely because  left-leaning young people and Latino voters stayed home.  They stayed home, I have suggested, because Democrats, especially in southern states like Texas, gave them no reason not to.  That’s simple enough.  But why did Democrats give working class voters and people of color so little to get excited about?

The standard answer is money.  An electoral system awash in largely unregulated contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals has made Democrats cautious. Unless we make nice to the folks with money, Democrats think, we can’t compete; and that means inching cautiously to the right even if the progressive wing of the party is marginalized in the process.

I have no beef with the “all about money” analysis, so far as it goes; but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In America, especially in the South, racial resentment trumps money every time.

In the circles Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama run in, it is considered tacky to talk a lot about money–it’s a sign of naivete.  Talking race (unless you’re absolutely sure no one is listening in) is considered the third rail of southern public life–touch it and you will die a quick, smoky death.

Paul Rosenberg’s recent article in Salon explains the Democratic Party’s problem with race . . . and Republicans hardly enter the picture.

The piece begins with a throwaway line from the closing days of Mary Landrieu’s senate race in Louisiana.  “I’ll be very honest with you,” Landrieu told NBC News, “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.  It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a positive light as a leader.”

It isn’t just the fact that more Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for the botched response to Katrina than blame George W. Bush (29%-28%) or that 37% of Republicans nationwide still question the president’s citizenship.

The problem is white Democrats.

Here’s the heart of Rosenberg’s argument in one paragraph:

Forty years of data from the General Social Survey — the gold standard of American public opinion research — say otherwise.  They tell us that Southern whites overwhelmingly blame blacks for their lower economic status, ignoring or denying the role played by discrimination, past and present, in all its various forms, and that the balance of Southern white attitudes has barely changed at all in 40 years. At the same time, attitudes outside the white South have shifted somewhat — but still tend to blame blacks more than white society, steadfastly ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary — such as 60 years of unemployment data, over which time “the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites,” as noted by Pew Research. It is only Democrats outside the white South who have dramatically shifted away from blaming blacks over this period of time, and the tension this has created within the Democratic Party goes to the very heart of the political challenge both Obama and Landrieu face — a challenge that is not going to simply go away any time soon.

Asked to explain high rates of African American poverty and unemployment, white Democrats typically blame the victim.  On the positive side, white Democrats outside the South mention discrimination, past and present, as an alternative or supplementary explanation.  But white attitudes in the South have hardly changed since the civil rights era.  That’s true of former Democrats who now vote Republican; but it is also true for white folks in the South who still call themselves Democrats.  

Democrats have a message problem because we can’t agree about the roots cause of poverty and economic inequality.  We can’t even decide if racial injustice is a thing.  The North-South divide is a big part of that problem, but I will restrict my attention to Democrats in the South.

A year ago, I was inclined to think that white Southerners who retain an allegiance to the Democratic Party must be dyed-in-the wool progressives with an informed and nuanced grasp of racial social dynamics.  Otherwise, they would have become Republicans, right? That was before I spent over a year accompanying my politician wife, Nancy Bean, to scores of Democratic functions throughout North Texas.

I haven’t encountered a lot of overt racism among white Democrats in places like Fort Worth and Arlington.  But most of the white Democrats I have run across are old enough to remember a time when white Texans were true-blue Democrats who favored a southern brand of small-government politics that accepted the racial status quo as a given.  Most of these people are convinced that Democrats could still win back white Republican voters if they were willing to move ever-so-slightly to the right.

I have no idea how young white Democrats feel about racial politics because, frankly, I haven’t met very many young white Democrats.  I’ve seen some young African Americans and Latinos, especially if they had candidates who addressed their concerns.

White Texas Democrats rarely ask themselves how their Black and Latino brothers and sisters feel about this “inching to the right” talk.  But the big question isn’t whether we should move to the right or to the left; it’s whether we want to belong to a party that addresses the felt needs of all Texans regardless of race, gender, social class or religion.

It isn’t enough for white Democrats to tolerate the presence of non-whites; there won’t be any fire in our politics until we celebrate our diversity.

I should admit, right up front, that my primary allegiance is religious rather than political.  If that turns you off, you have my permission to stop reading.  I should also admit that, for me, getting Democrats elected is a means to an end; my genuine passion is making Texas work for everybody.  If the Republican Party started factoring Jesus into their politics (I’m talking about the Jesus in the Bible) I would switch parties in a heart beat.,

Republicans (I was going to say “white Republicans” but, as things stand, that would be redundant) won’t get excited about an economically centrist party that places primary emphasis on abortion and gay rights.  Most Texans, including our Governor-elect, support abortion rights in the first few months of pregnancy, and Republicans realize that opposition to gay marriage is a non-starter with younger voters.

But here’s my thesis: only a party that celebrates racial diversity, economic justice, and equality of opportunity will build a fire big enough and warm enough to draw Republican converts.

Think about it.  How embarrassing must it be to attend a political rally that is 95% white.  And how embarrassing must it be to vote for a party that is famous for ignoring people of color.

Accusing Republicans of racism is counter-productive; guilt has never been a good motivator.  Instead, white Democrats need to concentrate on their own race problem, and that means starting with an awkward conversation we have been avoiding for decades.

One thought on “The race problem nobody wants to talk about

  1. Alan, when you suggest that, if Republicans would factor the Jesus of the Bible into their politics, you would switch parties in a heart beat, questions arise. While I am not sure exactly what you mean by FACTORING JESUS OF THE BIBLE into their politiics, here is what I suspect it means, and invite correction If I’m wrong. It means EXPAND WELFARE, ABOLISH BORDER CONTROL, AND GIVE IMMEDIATE CITIZEN BENEFITS TO ALL COMERS, REGARDLESS OF HOW THEY GOT HERE.

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