Americans have always had a particularly difficult time admitting they have a race problem despite the fact that race issues have been called “the American dilemma.” Last week, an essay I wrote on the role of racism in the 2012 election drew many comments proclaiming that racism couldn’t possible have played as central a role for white voters as I argued. While there was never a contention that racism was the entirety of the explanation for why nearly 60% of white voters selected the clearly inferior Romney over Obama, I did argue that it played a very significant role. This week, I will elaborate more fully on exactly why.
Some of the arguments against racism continuing to be a major American issue were: 1) the economy was the reason white voters didn’t support Obama; 2) white Democrats have similarly performed poorly with white voters; and 3) If minorities can disproportionately vote for Obama, why can’t whites disproportionately vote for Romney without race being an issue? These arguments made me realize that I needed to present more of the academic foundation for the role of race in American politics. Therefore, I will respond to each of the arguments in turn.
First, if the economy were truly driving the white vote, one would expect to see Obama achieve much higher percentages of white voters in 2008 when Republicans had just created the disastrous Great Recession with their ill-conceived policies. In fact, this was not the case. Obama only did marginally better with this population at the time. In fact, McCain garnered 57% of white men and 53% of white women. There was an uptick for Romney to 62% of white men and 56% of white women. One might attribute the 3-5% loss in the white vote to economic dissatisfaction. However, unless you argue that white voters are ignorant, as some contended, in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, a rational voter would have recognized that either McCain or Romney proposed policies that specifically caused the most horrific downturn in the American economy since the Great Depression. In fact, the last time Republican policies had created such circumstances, the country elected a Democrat four times while embracing progressive policies. There is room for a critique of Obama from the Left, in much the same way Roosevelt was too conservative in his first term, but that would hardly be a reason to turn around and vote more conservatively.
No, there is something else pushing white voters toward conservatism. What is it about conservatism that draws white voters? Specifically, why does a government that offers little in the way of social programs appeal to so many white voters? Why do white voters seem to prefer the Republican Party over the Democratic Party in election after election?
This brings us to the second argument: white Democrats have achieved similar vote totals to Obama. This is the most important point that needs to be addressed, because it is at the crux of the issues of racism that continue to plague Americans. It is quite true that since the 1972 election, white Democratic candidates for president have brought in rather low percentages of white voters. This was true particularly in 1972, when it seems clear the Democratic Party was being punished by white voters for its civil rights activism with a mere 32% of the white vote. The best showing Democrats have had in 40 years was when a Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, ran for president and achieved 47% of the white vote.
However, during Carter’s presidency, three social policies in particular that were strongly associated with the Democratic Party began to receive enormous backlash from white Americans: 1) affirmative action, 2) “forced” busing for desegregation, and 3) anti-poverty programs. In 1978, the Bakke case brought the term, “reverse discrimination,” into the vocabulary of the country, soon to be riling up “angry white males” at the notion of affirmative action. This occurred despite the fact the greatest benefactors of affirmative action have always been white women. White anger at what they perceived as “forced busing” programs was profound across the country. It was one of the most significant factors stimulating “white flight” from urban areas to the suburbs. In 1976, Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for President introduced the country to the term, “welfare queen.” Always quick to use race-baiting (after all, he did launch his 1980 campaign in the home of Mississippi Burning, Philadelphia, Mississippi), Reagan started a revolution of white resentment toward people on welfare by associating the program with poor blacks. It made little difference that the vast majority of recipients were poor whites. His goal was to take the well-known Southern Strategy national by ginning up bitterness about “my tax dollars going to those people.” Nixon may have started the ball rolling as described by Kevin Phillips in his book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” but Reagan wanted to be the heir to white racism.
Carrying forward to the present, researchers have studied how racism has morphed. Older forms of racism, such as believing blacks are subhuman or inherently inferior to whites, have fallen substantially, leaving mainly skinheads behind. When people talk about improvements in racist attitudes, they often think of this form of racism. However, another form of racism remains persistent: believing that black people violate American values, such as not working hard enough. On measures of this type of belief system, referred to as symbolic racism by academics, whites remain quite racist. As I mentioned last week, 51% of white Americans now openly profess these types of racist beliefs when polled, which nearly always reflect “symbolic racism” in the modern era.
The consequences of this thinking have been dramatic politically. Researchers who have been studying this issue for over 30 years have found that it is these racist beliefs driving whites to conservatism and negative views on the role of government. For example, David Sears has repeatedly found that even when he statistically controlled for what might be called “unbiased” or “principled” conservatism (genuine anti-big government attitudes), he still found that symbolically racist whites had a kind of “racial conservatism” which led them to reject social policies that benefit black people, only to support these same policies when they were told the policies would benefit a different group (e.g. women). Researchers Scott Blinder (2000s) and Martin Gilen (1990s), each independently and a decade apart, found that negative attitudes about blacks predict a lack of support for welfare policies.
Substantial numbers of whites have shifted away from Democrats and toward Republicans because they see Democrats as supporting policies that benefit African-Americans. In 1985, a headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer read, “Racial Issues Called Factor in Democratic Defections.” This article was based on a research report conducted by Stanley Greenberg. Researcher Michael Omi said of this report:
“A dramatic finding which emerges from this study is that for many of the respondents their understanding of international crises, domestic problems, and personal difficulties were all framed in racial terms. In one section, the report concludes: ‘Blacks constitute the explanation for [the white workers’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives.'”
Then in 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a second headline, “‘Black Party’ Image Splits Democrats.” Two years later, Clinton would get 39% of the white vote. Today, people point to Clinton’s white vote percentage as evidence that white voters are not racist in the modern era with Obama at the helm, perhaps not realizing Clinton was, in fact, leading “the Black Party” while also being “the first black President.”
When I argued that racism was still entrenched in this country based on how 59% of whites voted for Romney, I needed to elaborate that this wasn’t simply because Obama is black (though there was of course some of this). It is because, to a majority of white people, he represents the current embodiment of a party and of policies that white people feel support black people. White Democrats have received low white voter percentages as well by representing a party whose policies support targeted minority groups. The point is that I would have written the same article about entrenched racism in the USA if it had been a white Democrat receiving 39% of white votes, because the racist dynamic remains the same. The fact that Obama is, in fact, black of course only serves to intensify these undercurrents.
Finally, there is the notion that when large majorities of minority groups support Obama, they are equivalent in some form of racism to the majority of whites voting for Romney. The key question is to what degree is a person’s vote motivated by racial animus. Members of minority groups did not vote against Romney either: a) because of his race (they’ve been voting Democratic when the candidates were white) or b) because they want to prevent white people from receiving government benefits and stop policies like desegregation. Furthermore, minorities can point to numerous Democratic policies that protect their civil rights such as preventing voter suppression, maintaining public services like education, and extending access to healthcare. Conversely, when researchers specifically studied why whites were defecting from the Democratic party in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t because of what the Republicans were going to do for them as much as what the party promised they would do to stop the government from helping those people. In essence, it is this very promise from Republicans that has also driven away minority voters from their party.
A little over half of the votes Obama received came from white voters (56%). We can celebrate the fact that so many white people see beyond race when voting, and there is no doubt Obama would have lost the election without white voters. We can even celebrate the fact the Democratic Party is diversifying; in the mid-1970s, 84% of people who voted Democratic were white, that fell to 73% in the mid-1990s, and now rests at 56%. But, what we can’t pretend is that the United States doesn’t have a continuing problem with white racism.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.