Notes on the Atrocities
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Friday, July 16, 2004  

The Politics of Race

Another election year, another opportunity to kick the race football around.  Yesterday John Kerry spent the afternoon telling Bush--via the NAACP--neener, neener: "I will be a president who truly is a uniter, not one who seeks to divide our nation by race, riches or any other label. I will be a president who shares the values of people of all colors who get up and go to work every day, try to raise their families in dignity and want to leave this world a better place for their children. I will be a president who when he is invited into your home, will always say yes." Bush, never one to let a blow go unreturned, called the venerable civil rights organization "incivil" and "intolerant." 

Politicians have long understood that race is a whole lot easier to exploit than address. 

This year, Dems get a pass.  Bush received an all-time low of just 9% of the black vote in 2000, and he's been alienating that 9% ever since.  As the NAACP speech yesterday showed, all Kerry has to do is show up.  He won't be forced to talk race overtly, and the divisions that have split the country (particularly the South) since the civil rights era will be put aside this year.  Of course, that means he won't have to address race, either.

Even Bush, who in another year might be looking down the barrel of a "race problem," gets a pass.  For the past month he's been feeding the base nothing but red meat, and his rebuke of the NAACP can be seen as a backhanded way of playing to the "states' rights" crowd.  Who knows what Bush's personal views on race are--politically it's a clear choice.  For a guy teetering on the brink of elective catastrophe, the last thing he needs to do is cozy up to a black constituency whom he's spent four years screwing.  Better to give a wink and a nod to the good ol' boys down south.

But if race is politically clear-cut this year, it conceals an intractable problem at the heart of politics.  There is, of course, the ostensible conflict--racism itself.  But more subtle conflicts, often commingled with distal conflicts like economics and education, are the where the real trouble lies.

Overt racism is no longer the central problem.  We've come a long way from the time when a majority of Americans thought the races were biologically distinct, when brutal racism was justified by the belief in superior genes.  What exists now is the residue of that old hatred, a kind of belligerent racism to spite the facts.  Where race is used as a justification for policy, it's more likely to be a cultural rather than biological argument.  When blacks perform more poorly than whites in schools, for example, this is evidence of a lazy culture, not inferior genes. 

Things get really hairy when race forms a subsidiary issue to a larger problem--education, say.  Both parties co-opt race to bolster their own ideological stand on the issue.  In the new millennium, the GOP has suddenly (though not quite admirably) become color-blind.  They don't consider race when discussing education and then call it a virtue--never mind that black and Latino children lag behind whites in k-12 education, score lower on college boards, and attend college in smaller percentages.  The Democrats, meanwhile, use these same statistics to argue for stronger support of public schools--never mind that many public schools are a disaster and black interest in school vouchers is growing.  It's an example of how politicians use race as a football--which has the perverse effect of avoiding dealing with race directly. 

2004 is shaping up to be another year of race football.  With the war, terrorism, and the economy, it just won't move to the front burner.  It will get discussed, if at all, in support for other arguments.  Kerry, for example, might point out that not only are most of the people fighting Bush's war poor, they're disproportionately black.  But that argument, while true, is exactly the kind of argument that ignores the larger issues in American society.  America's white population is steadily declining--it is projected to be only 53% at midcentury--which means that issues of race aren't going to go away, they'll get more pronounced.  At some point, we're actually going to have to actually talk about it.  Directly.

posted by Jeff | 9:03 AM |
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