We talk about talking about race, but won’t talk about race

I made the mistake of watching some cable news coverage of the DNC this morning.  Several of the reporters were concerned – how I truly am beginning to loathe that word! – that Secretary Clinton’s polling numbers among white males weren’t as high as those of Donald Trump.  A couple of the presenters got close to the mark and then appeared to divert the channel into safer, softer, soil – they, meaning white males, are “angered,” or “feel outside the system..” or whatever.  No one mentioned R-A-C-E. Now, please consider the following three items:

“There’s a good deal of evidence that white resentment of minorities is linked to support for Republican candidates, their policies and conservative ideology in America,” said Robb Willer, a political psychologist at Stanford University. [WaPo]

“As the country has become more diverse, the Democratic Party has, too. But the demographics of the Republican Party have not changed much in recent years, according to Gallup. As of 2012, 89 percent of Republicans were non-Hispanic whites, compared to 60 percent of Democrats.” [WaPo]

“Across time points, racial prejudice was indirectly associated with movement identification through Whites’ assertions of national decline. Although initial levels of White identity did not predict change in Tea Party identification, initial levels of Tea Party identification predicted increases in White identity over the study period. Across the three assessments, support for the Tea Party fell among libertarians, but rose among social conservatives.” [PLOS journals]

The shorter version is the common summary: Republicans are not necessarily racist, but more racists tend to identify with Republicans; and, Tea Party identification was closely associated with “white identity.” Which goes a long way toward explaining this sighting at the recent RNC:

Trump Supporter Check List

No, Secretary Clinton is not likely to poll well with people who tend to focus on their white identity, white grievances, and white dissatisfaction.

If the cable broadcasters would like to fill up some vacant air time, there are deeper, more systemic questions that should be discussed.

Why are disaffected white males supporting a candidate who is not essentially Republican and not primarily a true conservative in the Everett Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor, or William F. Buckley mold?

Perhaps interviewing Ezra Klein or Jonathan Chait might offer some insight:

“[Trump] … has exposed a Republican Party many in the GOP will wish had stayed hidden. The core truth he has laid bare is that Republican voters are powered by a resentful nationalism more than a principled conservatism. “Republican politics boils down to ethno-nationalistic passions ungoverned by reason,” writes Jonathan Chait. “Once a figure has been accepted as a friendly member of their tribe, there is no level of absurdity to which he can stoop that would discredit him.” [Vox]

Chait continued:

“…since reason cannot penetrate the crude tribalism that animates Republicans, it follows that nothing President Obama could have proposed on economic stimulus, health care, or deficits could have avoided the paroxysms of rage that faced him.” [NYMag]

If 89% of a political party in America is non-Hispanic white, and if women lean toward the Democratic Party by a split of 52% to 36%, then how do we describe the Republican Party other than a political party of white men? Or, as the Pew Research study found in 2014, a party of older white men:

Age GOP/lean Dem / lean
18-33 35% 51%
34-49 38% 49%
50-68 41% 43%
69-85 47% 43%

A better cable roundtable discussion might focus not on how Secretary Clinton is not capturing the votes of white males, but on why the Republican Party can’t seem to attract more women, minority group members, and younger people?

Pundits tell us solemnly that we “need” a national discussion about race relations in this country, however that is very difficult to do when broadcasters themselves shy away from the topic.  Simply having a few “specials” with “both sides” isn’t the solution.

Whether the corporate media likes it or not, race and ethnic divisions have significance when we converse about any major social, economic, and political questions.  It’s part of the mix, and can’t be separated out like an egg yolk from national conversations.

Someone, somewhere must have perceived the ludicrousness of the proposition that merely talking about racial relations is “racism.”  What this too often boils down to is the assertion that anything which makes white people uncomfortable is “racist.”  Witness Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s recent over the top whine about those who criticized his attempt to “soften” the plight of slaves in 19th century America.

Speaking about the unequal and deleterious incarceration rate of young African American men isn’t racist, it’s an acknowledgement of a problem, and therefore an opening to use the discourse as a way to solve or at least mitigate the issue.

Speaking about income inequality isn’t racist. It’s an acknowledgement that working people in this county, especially people of color, aren’t able to scale the social and economic ladder as easily as in times past.  We could help with this but we have to talk about it.

Speaking about police reform isn’t racist. It’s an acknowledgement that too often for our liking there are law enforcement personnel who are not helping resolve issues between the police and the communities in which they are assigned. There are some police forces which have made great strides, Pittsburgh and Dallas for example, and those can be models. But, we have to talk about it.

Speaking about climate change isn’t racist, but we have to acknowledge that people of color are more likely to be residents of communities and neighborhoods which are the most afflicted with pollution, water problems, and devastation from climate events which become more serious each decade, if not each year.  Again, all the stakeholders need to be at the table for this national discussion.  It’s not enough to worry about the beach front property in Miami, we also need to be aware of the 9th Ward in New Orleans.

Race certainly isn’t the only issue facing this country, but it does tend to permeate most of the major challenges we face.  NOT talking about it is actually hurtful – it allows the tribalism to grow and fester, it allows the problems to remain unresolved, and it feeds the polarization which leads to political gridlock. 

However, the most egregious part of the Great Silence is that it allows us to cling to our tribe, ever more unwilling or unable to discuss, converse, or debate our issues or to practice the great art of any democracy – compromise.

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