American Politics Was About Race Long Before Barack Obama Came on the Scene

Adam Serwer commented on racial attitudes and the Obama agenda earlier today, saying:

I think it’s wrong to suggest that opposition to Obama’s agenda is “race-based,” because that suggests conservatives would feel differently if Obama weren’t president. I think the GOP’s general positions on the issues would be the same if Hillary Clinton were president.

I think that’s basically true, but in some ways it misses the point. American political behavior is heavily shaped by racial attitudes in ways that are much more fundamental than the race of the candidate. Just look at the extraordinary racial gap in voting behavior that occurs clearly and consistently every time a white Democrat faces off against a white Republican. Or look at how nominating Michael Steel didn’t make African-American Marylanders suddenly love Republicans. Stephanie Mencimer found a good example of this in the American Values Survey when she observed a big partisan gap in the answer to the question of whether or not discrimination against whites “is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

56 of Republicans (and 61 percent of self-described tea partiers) say it is, but only 28 percent of Democrats agree. Among white voters, more ethnocentric attitudes are associated with less support for means-tested welfare and more support for universal social insurance. It’s difficult to get this stuff acknowledged in the media because people get very defensive about accusations of racism. But the genius of the Mencimer question is that it’s really just a question. Evidently a question Americans disagree about. And in a way that’s systematically related to broader political issues.


I think it’s fair to say that putting an African-American presidential candidate on the ballot increases the salience of some of these divides over racial topics (I don’t think I would have seen so many of my black neighbors standing on long lines to buy special editions of the post-election copy of the Washington Post had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee) but racial issues have been important drivers of American politics since before the Constitution was written.