Today is Labor Day in an election year. It’s a time in the election cycle when media sources are filled with punditry– advice to Joe Biden and the Democrats, “analysis” of Trump and the GOP, and a variety of theories about political strategies that work and don’t.
I’ve come to a depressing conclusion: the November election is about one thing and one thing only. The results–and the margin of victory– will tell us whether America is finally ready to address the virulent racism that has infected both our personal attitudes and our governing institutions, and say “enough.”
The headline from a September article in The Intelligencer is on point:“Many GOP Voters Value America’s Whiteness More Than Its Democracy.”
The article began with what is by now a depressingly familiar litany of Trump’s assaults on democracy and the rule of law. The author dutifully noted that these assaults, and Trump’s failure to even pretend to honor longtime democratic norms–have “scandalized a significant minority of Republican elites.” Then came the obvious observation that the chaos and incompetence of the administration has not dampened the enthusiasm of what is now the rank-and-file of the GOP.
One explanation for Republican indifference to such deeds is that Republicans aren’t aware of them: Fox News’s programming and Facebook’s algorithm have simply kept red America blissfully ignorant of the commander-in-chief’s most tyrannical moods…
But a new paper from Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels suggests an alternative hypothesis: Many Republican voters value “keeping America great” more than they value democracy — and, by “keeping America great,” such voters typically mean “keeping America’s power structure white.”
Bartels is a widely-respected political scientist. His study was an effort to understand popular indifference to democracy on the American right. His conclusion was that “ethnic antagonism” predicted that indifference. In other words, racial animosity overwhelmed any concern Trump supporters might harbor about the governance of the country–and that popular support for authoritarianism within the GOP isn’t motivated by concerns over conservative Christianity’s declining influence over public life but rather with the dominance of the white race.
I don’t think I ever appreciated just how ugly and pervasive America’s racial animus has been, or the degree to which it was embedded in the laws of the land. I’ve been reading The Color of the Law, a recent book that sets out the history of laws requiring racial segregation in housing. Those laws were immensely more widespread and draconian than I had ever known–they went well beyond FHA and VA refusal to insure mortgages in neighborhoods that allowed Black people to live there. Restrictive covenants and legally-enforced redlining lasted far longer than most of us untouched by them would have supposed.
Reading about the blatant bigotry that created America’s ghettos–and the mob violence (not-so-tacitly approved by police) that often erupted when Blacks purchased homes in white neighborhoods– reminded me of David Cole’s eye-opening 1999 book, No Equal Justice, which I read several years ago. Cole documented the multiple ways in which the justice system doesn’t just fail to live up to the promise of equality, but actively requires double standards to operate–allowing the privileged to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without incurring the costs of extending those protections to minorities and the poor.
It’s bad enough that the America I actually inhabit turns out to be so different from the country I thought I lived in, but on November 3d, we will find out how many of our fellow citizens are white supremicists who agree with Donald Trump that anti-racist training is “UnAmerican.”
The last paragraph of the linked article really says it all.
When democracy came to America, it was wrapped in white skin and carrying a burning cross. In the early 19th century, the same state constitutional conventions that gave the vote to propertyless white men disenfranchised free Blacks. For the bulk of our republic’s history, racial hierarchy took precedence over democracy. Across the past half century, the U.S. has shed its official caste system, and almost all white Americans have made peace with sharing this polity with people of other phenotypes. But forfeiting de jure supremacy is one thing; handing over de facto ownership of America’s mainstream politics, culture, and history is quite another. And as legal immigration diversifies America’s electorate while the nation’s unpaid debts to its Black population accrue interest and spur unrest, democracy has begun to seek more radical concessions from those who retain an attachment to white identity. A majority of light-skinned Americans may value their republic more than their (tacit) racial dominance. But sometimes, minorities rule.