Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
Anyway, there’s been a pretty lively debate raging between Yglesias, Douthat, Judis and Feeny. It’ll probably come as no surprise that I mostly agree with Douthat, if with a significant twist. It’s not that I put it past McCain’s people to race-bait, it’s that I really don’t care.
I think I should revise and extend my remarks on this score. “Race-baiting,” however defined, is not really the issue. Indeed, I tend to think that as a political concept it’s overblown. Barack Obama is a black man. This is obvious. People inclined to let this fact influence their vote — either those drawn to him or those repelled from him on account of his race — probably don’t need to be prompted or baited into doing so. The more important point is that race and racism have a large structural pull on the shape of American politics. In particular, they’re an obstacle for a politics of economic equality, security, and solidarity.
This happens through a number of mechanisms. One is that you have white Americans near the bottom of the economic spectrum who may be more inclined to identify on a personal level with whites near the top of the pyramid than with non-whites who are more similarly situated in terms of objective interests. Recall the great Gelman race/class master charts:
Poor Hispanics, poor Asians, poor African-Americans, and poor “others” are all very disinclined to vote Republican. But about half of poor non-Hispanic whites do. Conversely, very few rich African-Americans vote Republican, notwithstanding the general pro-GOP sympathies of rich non-Republicans. I don’t think anyone would take me to be saying anything especially controversial if I were to say that rich blacks’ aversion to the Republican Party is, in part, a matter of racial solidarity with the mostly non-rich black population trumping class solidarity with the mostly non-black rich population. But the same is true on the flip side — white racial solidarity trumping class solidarity is one of the reasons that poor whites are so relatively friendly to the Republican Party.
Another mechanism has to do with trust. Once upon a time there was a lot of concern with “welfare fraud.” Welfare fraud was a real phenomenon. And, clearly, being against fraud is not a racist sentiment as such. At the same time, children suffering lifelong handicaps in the struggle to build a decent life for themselves owing to growing up in conditions of deplorable poverty also was (and is) a very real problem. And when designing systems, it’s difficult to maximize the value of “giving all the help needed to everyone who needs it” and also maximize the value of making the system completely immune to fraud or abuse. When the recipients of help are people you find it easy to identify with, the tendency is to tell yourself sympathetic stories about their plight. When the recipients of help are people you find it difficult to identify with, you become much more skeptical — very eager to make sure that not one red cent is spent on an idler or a fraudster. Doing that becomes the most important thing, and that means that more legitimate needs wind up going unmet. And, again, it’s not racist to decide that you’re more interested in preventing fraud than in providing people with preventive health care — that’s a value decision. But it does seem that which values people prefer depends in part on racial and ethnic factors.
It’s not a coincidence that you tend to see more generous welfare states constructed in countries that have traditionally been homogeneous, or that in the US the South has both been the epicenter of racial animosity and the location of the least generous welfare states. One could arguably tell a story in which it’s the Swedes and the Finns who are the real racists here (letting Nordic genetic superiority blind them to the overarching merits of sink-or-swim individualism) but either way you’re going to get the result that racial and ethnic conflict is relevant to the politics of class and economics.