Race, Denial, Obliviousness and Oblivion


I had a funny experience yesterday, one that taught me on a whole new level the barriers on the way to any significant dimunition of the role of race and racialized politicking in our country. It came from the response to this post I wrote on the zero sum dynamics of race and American politics.The gist of my piece was that it’s not so simple as the GOP ‘outreaching’ its way to more support with African-American and Hispanic voters. The kinds of changes the GOP would have to make to get any access to minority voters would inevitably loosen its hold on the white voters whose votes it’s been working to maximize as their share of the population decreases. If you drop anti-immigration politics, English only initiatives, minority voter suppression, overturning civil rights laws and all the rest, some of your white voters are going to start saying, “Hey, why am I a Republican again?”

And that doesn’t even get us to less clearly racialized policies like Health Care Reform where opinions differ markedly across the racial divide.

The point is pretty simple: our politics today is heavily correlated to racial cleavages in our society. If you fiddle with the policy mix on one side, it’s going to have a pretty immediate change on the other side as well. If you go and endorse a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants you’re going to lose some traction with the folks who are mainly politicized around hostility to immigrants. And the same dynamic plays out on all these fronts.

But shortly after writing the post I saw a tweet from a guy named Sean Geary Higgins who I later found out was a columnist at The Washington Examiner. This quick exchange happened …

I wasn’t familiar with Higgins. And on first blush it didn’t connect to me that he’d written a post or quite even what he was suggesting. I thought it was a misunderstanding or clipped Twitter speak rather than what it turned out to be. So some time later I looked again and then went to the link to his story.

It was sort of eye-popping in a way one often finds in the very tendentious world of political commentary. Higgins had turned my argument upside down to say something wildly different than what I had written. His strawman version of my argument was that if blacks, for instance, started voting for Republicans, whites would say, ‘Hey, I don’t like black people. So I’m finding another party!’

Along these lines, he even went on with what struck me as a run of unintentional comedy …

But if this were true, wouldn’t the party be trying to hide its black and Hispanic candidates from the voters, instead of offering them prime speaking slots at convention? You could deride Republican efforts in this regard as patronizing or tokenistic, but you certainly can’t say they’re trying to hide black and Hispanic conservatives.

And as any Republican fundraising consultant will tell you, there’s no better way to make Republican donors open their wallets than to send out a mailer with a black conservative asking for money.

The Republican Party could use a lot more credible black and Hispanic primary candidates, perhaps. But when given the opportunity, Republican primary voters in extremely white districts do nominate conservative Black and Hispanic candidates for office. Republicans have also elevated to hero status a number of blacks, such as Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, Allen West, Mia Love, Tim Scott, Artur Davis and Ben Carson.

This is a party where Herman Cain could (albeit briefly) hold front-runner status in a presidential primary. While it is beyond dispute that the GOP has a serious outreach problem to African-American voters (which goes back to Barry Goldwater and his libertarian-minded opposition to civil rights legislation) it is not based on some overt or even covert hostility to the black community.

Really? Fundraising pitches from one of the 31 blacks Republicans generates lots of contributions? Alan Keyes? Herman Cain? Really?

Now as I said, a lot of this — tendentiousness and willful misunderstanding — is par for the course. But after thinking about it and reading the piece a few times, I realized that it didn’t even occur to Higgins and a bunch of others of similar thinking who jumped into the conversation that some real changes in policy might be necessary to change the GOP’s fortunes with non-whites voters. The disconnect came into sharp relief when he defended himself for premising his entire argument around a misunderstanding of what I had actually said …

Now that may be so. A party that substantially changed its policies to reach a different group of people would indeed risk alienating the people who previously supported it. Such trade-offs are inherent in politics. That’s not what Marshall said in his original post though. He didn’t talk about parties changing policies. He talked instead of a hypothetical scenario where politics in general was simply “deracialized.”

Authors aren’t always the best interpreters of what they write. So I’ll leave it to you to read what I wrote and decide whether my argument was clear or not. Perhaps it was more implicit than I realized.

But a big chunk of the barrier is the mindset through which Higgins tried to understand what I was saying. The idea that policies might be an issue didn’t strike him as having any necessary connection to the conversation. So whites support the GOP by solid majorities — and older white men by overwhelming majorities — because of ‘conservative’ policies. Meanwhile minority voters are moving toward little short of unanimous opposition to the GOP just … just because, apparently. Happenstance or a misunderstanding or … something. So how does politics become de-racialized? It just happens.

I always wonder what level of cynicism, denial and obliviousness is involved in this kind of thinking. It varies greatly from person to person. But there’s clearly a long way to go.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.