More Than One Thing Happened in 2008

TPM Reader JB adds to our “Hard to Handle” thread on the subject of race and reminds us of that other elephant in the room …

I’ve been following with interest the series of TPM posts on race. They touch on many points I think are correct, but so far at least are leaving out something important.

The nature of the recession that began in earnest in 2008 insulated many Americans from its worst effects. It also, I believe, led many to a major failure of comprehension as to just how traumatic a period this was for much of the public. Many Americans lost everything when asset prices crashed; many more experienced the fear that they could have. Government’s response preserved financial markets, but was insufficient to blunt the force of the worst recession in living memory for large areas of the country. Nor were explanations from the government (or most other information sources) as to how this enormous disaster had happened clear or persuasive — once again, I think largely because people best able to explain what had happened were insulated themselves from the worst of the recession.

People will seek their own explanations for major events if none are forthcoming from trusted sources. Those explanations won’t always follow a defensible chain of logic, nor will they always be worthy. More often than not, they will be based on beliefs held already.

Examples? When the recession hit, fiscal conservatives doubled down on the idea that excessive government spending had caused the crisis and cutting government spending was the right response to it — all evidence and most economic theory to the contrary. Republicans who had bitterly opposed immigration reform when illegal immigration was at its peak opposed it still more bitterly after the recession had greatly reduced America’s attractiveness as an destination for economic migrants. Government regulation that business had opposed before it resented even more after a recession largely caused, ironically, by woefully inadequate government regulation of business in the financial sector.

I don’t think discussion of race relations in this country can take place independent of the economic trauma bequeathed to America’s first black President by his hapless predecessor. Race has always been a major factor in American politics, and still is — overtly in the states of the formerly slaveholding South, more indirectly elsewhere. There is, however, no good reason to think there is more racism in America now than there was when the century began. Little about the relationship of African-Americans to the white majority, in particular, has changed in what you or I would consider a negative direction.

What has changed, for millions of Americans not in your line of work or mine, is the disintegration of rules around which they had built their economic lives and those of their families. Large numbers of them are touchy and resentful; not a few, lacking better explanations for this disaster, have focused their resentment on President Obama. It is surely true that the long history of racism in America strongly influenced this development. It is also true, though, that most white Americans outside the South (and a increasing number even there) are not deeply invested in anti-black attitudes as such. That expression of such attitudes is tolerated more in some circles today has a lot to do with the disorientation produced by the economic cataclysm of the last few years.

I do not intend this comment to represent a grand unified theory of race in American politics. It leaves out a great deal. But race in American politics is one of many subjects that has been impacted by the Great Recession — even if some of the people who influence political discussion in this country were not.