How Important Is Race In US Politics?

‘I am the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas,’ asserted Barack Obama in 2008; ‘and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story possible.’ This speech came in March 2008; until this point candidates on both sides had avoided discussing race as an issue. Obama wished to establish himself as a candidate outside of race, yet ultimately this was not possible. Those opposed to this strategy ensured that race remained an integral factor in the 2008 election and the wider US political scene. Race can be seen to link to a variety of policy areas. For example, a recent New York Times article states that, ‘four in 10 Black children are born into poverty [while] less than one in 10 White children are.’ [2] Statistics such as this demonstrate that race in connection with economics and class are central issues for US politics more generally. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention compiled an extensive report in January 2011 detailing racial disparities in a broad array of health problems; highlighting the continual significance of race as a policy issue, particularly in popular discourse, as this report received much mainstream media attention. [3] Yet the subsequent issues raised by race have changed. No longer are blatant displays of racism socially or legally acceptable; so what is preventing us from deeming America a ‘post-racial’ society? [4] Furthermore, why is a post-racial society the aspiration? On the one hand, it falls in line with the American principle of a united nation, yet on the other hand it is considered dangerous to attempt to embrace different cultures, after so many years of segregation. Furthermore, the absence of overt discrimination does not mean that exclusion has ended, rather, that ‘the character of [such] discrimination has changed.’ [5]

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This paper shall argue the continuing importance of race in US politics, both through its overt influence on policy making as well as its implicit influence; as often discussions which avoid race are making an equally important statement. This essay shall consider race largely in terms of traditional binaries of Black and White. Incorporating an analysis of ethnicity will be too broad, particularly as language and immigration would need to be considered. Obama’s election as a mixed-race American has brought traditional binaries of Black and White back to the forefront of discussions. While other minority groups do add another layer of complexity, analysis of this goes beyond the scope of this essay. A further constraint has meant that race will be discussed with regard to the domestic, and in particular, on a federal level. Historically race issues differed between states, and while there may still be variation regarding perceptions between more conservative or more liberal states, a discussion of federal policy regarding race will allow wider conclusions to be drawn.

Race can be considered to encompass issues of governmental policy, party policy, public perceptions and political strategy. If race is viewed in this way it is possible to attempt to separate political and legislative conceptions of race from discussions of individual discrimination. The former is the focus for this paper. All of these factors become heightened during election years, where race continues to divide people, even within the same party. Notably, the emergence Tea Party faction on the Republican side, a ‘platform for conservative populist discontent’ demonstrates views held are not true of all of the Republican Party; furthermore, it may not necessarily represent views of all Tea Party movements, as ‘there is no single Tea Party.’ [6] It is the nature of US political parties to encompass huge variation within the main parties. Election years provide an increased awareness of the political, and as such will provide recent examples of the trends in racial politics. This can be seen presently through the debate over Obama’s place of birth; with the administration choosing to release the long birth certificate before the next election cycle. The argument will proceed through three substantive sections; firstly a discussion of race and the electorate; second, the factors which continue to shape racial inequality; and finally governing, including an analysis of candidate choice.

Race and class

Recent shifts in the American demographic are crucial to understanding how race as an issue has changed, particularly in the post-Bush era. This change in administration provided substantive change in some areas, but arguably not during the 2008 campaign period. Minorities did, and will, continue to be a ‘secondary concern’ while ‘White voters’ retain plurality status,’ this notion featured prominently in the 2008 general election, as voting statistics suggest parties will continue to bring White issues to the forefront in order to win elections. It can be seen that there is ‘a glaring ideological disconnect between the desire and reality of a race-free society.’ [7] Teasley and Ikard, in their article ‘The Myth of Postracism’ suggest the danger of complete investment in postracial thinking, particularly for the most economically vulnerable African American population. The prominent liberal view of racial policy suggests a cautious approach, favouring the idea of a colour blind society. While it is suggested that there is ‘no currently viable alternative to a liberal vision of race,’ it can be inferred that at least racialism as a theory acknowledges the ‘persistence of racism’ in America. [8] Critical Race Theory (CRT) favours a race conscious approach, reliant upon political organisation. In arguing the need for CRT, Metzler presents an argument for why the term postracial is ‘meaningless as a critique.’ [9] Usefully, the theory also allows for intersections between race, class and sex. A basic premise is that while electoral decisions may claim to be ‘colour blind’ they are actually steeped in racist ideology. [10] For example, it can be argued that race as a political factor will be avoided as much as possible; unless a politician’s political survival depends on it. Example – 2008 or Sotomoyar The premise of a race neutral campaign is to develop a coalition of support, regardless of race. Yet ultimately, there remains a divergence as to why different racial groups voted for Obama, ‘while many Whites voted for Obama as a way to move beyond race, many Blacks voted for him as a way to vindicate the entire Black race.’ [11] While the term ‘vindicate’ may be unnecessarily emotive, the notion of collective Black support for Obama is significant as an example of the continual relevance of race in US electoral politics and the differing motives for voting behaviour.

The mere suggestion that issues still exist as Black or White demonstrates the continuing importance of race. After his 2000 election victory, Bush was famously advised that if he did not improve his minority vote, he would be unable to win the next election. The pattern of immigration in the US has left the country with a large multicultural demographic. The nature of such immigration, being both forced through slavery, and voluntary, is a relatively unique phenomenon; as such racial issues are historically rooted in much of American society. This seems to make some of the electorate, particularly minorities, more inclined to talk about race, while often having the opposite affect among White voters. Due to the growth in minority populations, there has been a proportional decrease to the White population. In 2008, the Black population alone comprised 12.8% of the population. The national census of 2010 puts this original figure at 12.6%, demonstrating a further demographic shift, with African Americans no longer comprising the majority minority, with the Black population comprising a smaller proportion than other minority groups. [12] This suggests a limit to traditional oppositional binaries of Black vs. White, with new minorities gaining ever increasing populations, and in theory increasing significance. Binaries remain important, but it is important to realise that they do not always give us a complete picture; as an increasing number of citizens describing themselves as multi-racial, 3.4% in the last census. [13] However, in the 2008 election focus was not given evenly to each minority group. Perhaps because some minority groups are more valuable when translated into votes, or perhaps because some groups are more politically active than others. South Asian voters had a huge impact on the democratic primaries in 2008, particularly in California, yet the binary view continued to dominate discussions. This may have been a temporary fluctuation, encouraged by the race between a Black candidate and a White candidate for the presidency. Yet it seems that the trend is actually a continuation from a longstanding history of dealing in terms of Black and White issues of race. The Black community also remains much more vocal than other minority groups, particularly more assimilated Asian voters. Ultimately, binaries remain useful in demonstrating the importance of race in contemporary politics, as it remains that conflicts between Black issues and White issues are at the forefront of debate, particularly with regard to healthcare and education.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton restored the Democratic Party’s competitiveness by mostly avoiding the race-specific rhetoric and policies that had helped drive disaffected White voters toward the Republican opposition. The boom he presided over produced political and economic benefits for African-American families as well as well as Whites, making him popular with both groups. Comparing this to the situation in 2008; ‘a deeper analysis of Obama’s poll numbers [aˆ¦] indicates that very little changed in terms of voting habits in this election cycle.’ [14] Thus, on the surface it seems significant that Obama has successfully reproduced the polling numbers of Clinton, ‘a White Southerner,’ adding substance to the post-racial argument. [15] Yet in context, Obama was nominated during a period of frustration with the outgoing Republican administration, at a time of economic uncertainty, and when a generation of African American’s had won elected office. Thus it can be seen how race as a domestic issue is closely interlinked with other factors, notably feeling toward the outgoing administration and the fluctuating state of the economy. As such, examples which are often cited to demonstrate the decreasing significance of race can actually be at least partially attributed to other factors.

The socioeconomic divide in America is expanding; ‘in a multiracial society where the races are unequal, there will often be a racial dimension to class differences, for class is an efficient recoder of racism.’ [16] Reed suggests that this is an historical trend, ‘built on the back of enslaved Africans,’ as such, for Reed, race and colour have always been the ‘ultimate’ determinants of socioeconomic status. [17] Yet it seems that the greatest divide came long after the period of reconstruction. Since 1970 the socioeconomic divide has become more evident; while the status of the most disadvantaged members of the minority population deteriorated, that of the advantaged has notably improved. [18] This is clearest in relation to the Black American population. As such, it seems that race becomes less important because of socioeconomic factors. The rate of improvement is also notable; in several areas, such as college attendance, ‘Blacks [aˆ¦] have made those improvements at a relatively faster rate than the reported progress of comparable Whites.’ [19] Thus, the fact that the number of Blacks enrolled full-time at colleges and universities nearly doubled between 1970 and 1980 (to over 1 million) demonstrates that there is a growing ‘economic schism’ between lower-income and higher-income Black families, with the lower members of the community being left behind. [20] Policies such as affirmative action enhance this trend, doing more for the more advantaged members of Black communities compared to those from lower incomes. With race being so closely connected to socioeconomic conditions, it only increases its importance as a factor in US politics as the subject becomes broader.

Hooks divides the Black community into class groups, and suggests that this has a considerable impact on perceptions by both the Black and the White community. [21] The impact of this has been to divide the Black community into sub groups, with many of the higher-income families becoming increasingly assimilated with the White community. As a basic concept this is still relevant, yet much of what Hooks’ outlined has become dated. Hooks argued that ‘class-based racial integration’ disrupted what he terms, ‘racial solidarity’ in essence; that previously class standing was irrelevant to the Black community, but increased integration has erased this ‘bond’ between communities. [22] While it can be accepted that there did exist a sense of community, it is not true to say this has diminished to the extent which Hooks believed. Significantly, it seems the nomination of Obama reignited a sense of Black community; ‘the mobilisation of Black voters can be attributed to a growing sense of group consciousness and empowerment.’ [23] Yet what is more convincing, is Hooks’ argument regarding communities. The emergence of what has been termed, a Black middle class, has led to wealth being removed from communities, leaving the ‘poor and underclass’ as ‘isolated segregated communities.’ [24]

Race and the media

It is important to consider whether race can continue to be discussed independently, or if class is now a more important issue. It seems the two issues are, and have been, fundamentally intertwined, due to long standing inequalities linking back to before the Civil War. However, the extent of this has changed, and the emergence of Black middle class has led class to move toward the forefront of political discussions of race. It is significant to discuss how and why the public produce conceptions of race, with particular emphasis on the role of the media as a source. As a nation, America emerged from a unique system of oppression and slavery. As such, race remains deeply rooted in the lives of many Americans. In an age where post-racial politics seems to be a common aspiration, for electoral benefit as much as for issues of equality, it is important to realise how race continues to appear on the political agenda. Some significant events can be cited in contemporary American politics as periods of change. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 permanently altered American domestic and foreign policy and new issues of race were raised with the growing politicisation of Islamophobia. More recently, with regard to the binaries discussed so far, came the political impact of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Worst affected by this disaster was the city of New Orleans, which had a substantial Black population. The suffering of the people of New Orleans allowed the Democratic Party to establish itself as an alternative; and allowed it to distinguish itself through the racial politics of hurricane Katrina. It gave the Democrats the chance to put race onto the political agenda, yet arguably Obama attempted to distance himself from this strategy. This task was made easier for the Democrats due to a period of highly publicised racial shaming. By the time of the 2008 election, the Democrats were seen as a viable alternative to the Republican Party, who were famously said not to ‘care about Black people.’ [25] This quote from an influential Black performer became a popular sound bite, demonstrating the importance of the media, and as such it did much to contribute to Bush’s unpopularity. Following hurricane Katrina, many people sought to answer the question of whether its social effects and the government response to the country’s biggest natural disaster had more to do with race or class. Or if again, they were unavoidably linked.

An argument surrounds the prominence race received as a factor in the Katrina disaster. While liberals could be accused of citing race in an attempt to reference a wider, more historic discrimination against Blacks, it was not an effective strategy as it did little to alter government policy. Therefore, although addressing Katrina as a race issue had a profound effect on the electorate, it was only later that it began to really influence policy. However, it seems that concluding class to be a more significant factor, is to divert attention away from race, ‘thus [discouraging] a deeper discussion about the ways race and class intertwine.’ [26] Ultimately, Katrina is a prime example of the intrinsic way race and class are intertwined, largely due to the historical nature of racism in the region, in relation to housing and neighbourhood distribution. Few comparisons were made between White and Black residents, but as Lavelle and Feagin suggest; only 17% of Whites lacked access to a car to evacuate with, compared to 60% of Black residents. [27] Media images showed nearly all those left suffering in New Orleans were Black Americans, making it seem like a race issue; however those in more financially stable positions were able to live in safer areas, ‘those families most able to afford homes in safer flood-protected areas and that had resources to evacuate easily suffered much less than poorer families,’ seemingly suggesting a class issue. Furthermore, what is also significant about the Katrina example is the way in which the media reported the story. The media are one of the most effective methods of communication across the US, as such, what is reported is highly influential among the electorate; ‘It is universally accepted that mass media hold great power, as they transmit information to the public and are free to highlight certain news items and ignore others, setting the agenda of public life and creating consensus or disagreement on certain issues.’ [28] However, it took until September, a month after the disaster, for the media story to shift from stories of Black crime to the failures of government in mediating the disaster.

Representation of race in the media has often contained rigid stereotypes, particularly with regard to the traditional binaries. This becomes increasingly problematic when it is considered that the portrayal may equate to the only contact a member may have with a particular racial group. In a study carried out by Johnson, he highlighted this dilemma; questioning the consequences; ‘If somebody is living in Boston, and all their information on Black Bostonians comes from the media, what does that look like?’ [29] Johnson purported that White owned media in Boston tended to report more according to stereotypes than the Black owned media. While it was the Black owned agencies that were said to carry more positive stories, alongside the negative. Conducting a follow up to this initial study in the 1980’s, Johnson looked at the distribution of coverage at the turn of the century. While crime stories continue to top the kind of coverage given to African Americans, the percentage of this coverage has dropped. Among Black owned media, education stories became central, with crime stories being placed much lower. Perceptions are crucial in politics, particularly in such a vast nation as America. Kellstedt suggests that there is a lack of substantive evidence supporting the notion that ‘media coverage of race actually affects public opinion in any systematic way,’ yet he goes on to assert that it is an underlying assumption that the media has helped shape the course of race politics. [30] Due to their communicative role, the way the media chose to relay stories, or even the choice in stories they portray, have a profound impact in the electorate; ‘there is a discourse of racism that advances the interests of Whites and that has an identifiable repertoire of words, images, and practices through which racial power is applied.’ [31] However, although the media still dominate communication, candidates are having an increasingly close relationship with the electorate through mediums such as social networking. As such, it seems candidates are getting increasing access to the electorate, thus racial issues can be dealt with or avoided, as the candidates chose. Of course this is relative, and the media will always retain the power of scrutiny, as is the nature in a liberal democracy.

If the media shape the political agenda in the aforementioned way, then what constitutes a racial issue? It seems any number of issues could constitute a racial issue. For example, with regard to education the percentage rates of high school graduates can be used to summarise that Black students are still ‘failing at an alarming rate’ compared with White students. [32] Or with regard to housing; although overt discrimination is no longer practiced, other practices still take place to isolate minorities from the housing market. Issues regarding joblessness, healthcare and criminal justice all continue to disproportionally affect people of colour. But what is important to question is whether these issues should be framed as racial issues, or whether this in itself is an acknowledgement of a continual inequality. If the nation were to truly adopt colour blind policies, then the theory would suggest that issues should be discussed independently from race. As such, a policy about the environment should be isolated, even though it may impact disproportionately communities of colour. But if these issues are no longer treated in isolation, politicians can be accused of pandering towards affirmative action, which is still viewed sceptically by many of the electorate. To acknowledge that so many political issues can become issues of race acknowledges the uniqueness of race as an issue area. Whether the trade-off between isolating policies is acceptable, or desirable, gets to the heart of racial policy in the USA.

Is Race neutrality possible?

Finally, it will be useful to look at the last presidential campaign, in order to discuss whether it can be concluded that the campaign was ‘race neutral,’ and why this may have been an aspiration to so many candidates. [33] While this may have been the intention, partisan strategy among other factors, ensured that race was not allowed to remain off the political agenda. This continued to be true in light of the 2010 midterm elections, even though Obama was not on the ticket, much discussion among the media was once again given to his African American status and the impact this would have.

Race can be seen to affect politics both implicitly and explicitly. Candidate choice was undoubtedly the aspect of race occupied most by the media. The beginning of the campaign was in line with the notion of an inclusive America. Yet the campaign shifted with the widespread circulation of Reverend Wright’s sermon, in which he controversially said, ‘the government lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq being a threat to the United States peace.’ [34] Obama’s candidacy became very clearly race bound. At this point Obama had to justify himself in racial terms, which was a strategy which had been avoided until this point. The significance of what has since been termed Obama’s race speech in 2008 is not just that it was the first point in the campaign that race became openly discussed, but it is rather what Obama did in this speech, he acknowledged the continual tensions; ‘a part of our union we have yet to perfect.’ [35] He demonstrated that he was a clear personification of both oppositional binaries, while offering an ability to transcend them.

Black support can be seen to be both a strength and weakness for democrats. Black support can alienate other groups of voters, traditionally there have been tensions between the Black and Hispanic communities. [36] De-racialization is seen during campaigning when candidates attempt to avoid explicit references to race issues, in attempt to remain inclusive. Concurrently, candidates use implicit strategies such as using racial symbolic Black and Latino faces in their literature; while putting increased emphasis on issues which are perceived to be racially transcendent and ultimately, attempt to appeal to a broad selection of the electorate. [37] Thus even when race is not vocalised during an election, it still plays a vital role. Charles Hamilton first proposed a race neutral strategy in 1973, [38] Obama has been said to follow such strategy, in that he did so much to ‘avoid discussing race as an aspect of his campaign.’ [39] The supposed advantage of such avoidance is to encompass the widest possible selection of the electorate. With regard to voting behaviour, issues need to be directed at those who will provide the swing vote. There are limitations on the political power and influence of minorities, thus making it rational for parties to focus on the White majority, and to use deracialisation strategies. [40] For example, Democrats traditionally receive a disproportionate share of the minority vote, as such, it is in their interest to direct policy to White issues because they can rely on receiveing Black votes regardless; ‘thus, the United States has racially polarized politics while race, itself, is depoliticised.’ [41] The running of a race neutral campaign is an acknowledgement in itself of the importance of race. If accepting that Black and White voters continue to prioritise different issue areas, it is also true to acknowledge that the running of a race-neutral campaign can be difficult to balance. The aim is to attract White voters without losing a connection to the Black community.

Race will continue to be an issue even after the election period ends. With regard to Obama, it is again a new phenomenon; if it assumed that the race neutral campaign will extend to an attempt at race neutral governing, then Obama will continue to avoid the issue of race. This has been seen through the first half of his first term. Race issues are not overtly mentioned unless completely necessary. However this is not due to Obama’s skilled pragmatism. In fact, it seems Obama may be constrained by those who elected him in the first place, as well as by the partisan tactics of the Republican opposition. If Obama had mounted a concerted series of ‘racial’ policy issues, then White voters may have felt alienated. A lot of the early fears from the campaign would be perceived to be correct: for example that Obama was an African American; interested in prioritising minority issues. This goes against the intended pluralistic nature of US politics. Reed claims that Americans will have to ‘mount a concerted effort’ to have Obama promote anything regarded as a ‘Black issue.’ [42] Thus, have African American issues actually been side-lined and consequently jeopardised through the election of the country’s first Black president. If Obama does continue to down play racial issues, Conservative arguments declaring the irrelevance of race will be strengthened. [43] Conservatives use Obama’s image as a ‘sign that racism is dead,’ while at the same time evoking race strategies against him. [44] Race becomes an unavoidable issue of cont