Does Race Still Matter in Politics?

Illustration for article titled Does Race Still Matter in Politics?

This summer, Republicans in South Carolina backed an African-American businessman named Tim Scott over former Sen. Strom Thurmond's son to fill a House seat. In picking a U.S. Senate candidate, Florida Republicans bypassed their veteran governor for the conservative Marco Rubio, who is Cuban American. Black Democrats in Alabama voted for their policy preferences (health-care reform) instead of their race in helping lift a white candidate, Ron Sparks, to victory over African-American Rep. Artur Davis in the governor's race.

At the same time, several black politicians have tried to adopt the tactics President Obama employed to win the White House in 2008 and failed. The rise of the Tea Party revealed not just a split between left and right but a distinct racial polarization highlighted by last month's dueling marches in Washington. With several of their members facing ethics investigations, some in the Congressional Black Caucus hinted that race had helped make them targets.

When Obama won the presidency two years ago, it was a historic moment in terms of racial progress for the country. But his election has neither established some kind of "post-racial" politics, as some hoped at the time, nor resulted in a more racialized politics embodied by the Tea Party and its opponents, as some have argued over the last year. Instead, the last two years in Washington and on the campaign trail have revealed a complicated muddle that tells little about the future of politics and race.


As Obama's election showed, race is no longer the barrier it used to be. Along with Scott, Indian-American Nikki Haley won in the Republican gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. Black Republicans are running for House seats in Colorado and Florida, enthusiastically embraced by the larger Republican establishment. Deval Patrick, a black Democrat, is likely to be re-elected as governor of Massachusetts.

These embraces by the GOP are more important than Michael Steele's election as head of the Republican National Committee. GOP voters, not party insiders, tapped these candidates, and unlike Steele — whom party insiders have ignored for months and likely will replace in January after a long series of gaffes — a governor or a congressman can't be easily sidelined.

Because more than 90 percent of blacks are Democrats, all of those GOP candidates won huge swaths of white support in emerging from Republican primaries.

Alternatively, but also illustrating a kind of post-racial politics, black candidates are finding that any automatic support they expected from black voters is gone. In Alabama, many black voters were furious at Davis for not backing the federal health-care law, which he opposed during his primary, with an eye toward winning the general election in a conservative state. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty lost a Democrat primary after black voters abandoned him in droves, frustrated that, in their view, he was more focused on upper-income and whiter areas of the city than on some of the black wards.


These are all signs of an emerging politics in which race matters less than ever. But at the same time, another picture of the electorate has emerged. Blacks and whites have long viewed politics and the broader culture in radically different ways, as was seen during the O.J. Simpson trial. And because blacks are overwhelmingly Democratic, politics has long had a racial divide.

And that divide has created one of the more interesting dynamics in today's politics. If you're a reporter in Washington, it's easy to bump into African Americans who are critical of the president or his team's policies, political approach or even what some feel is a lack of diversity in his inner circle.


But almost all of these activists are reluctant to see their name attached to a story, worried about becoming the next Tavis Smiley, who repeatedly criticized Obama but instead found himself being sharply attacked by African Americans. It is perhaps the most obvious sign of a politics still trapped in race that black political activists don't have the confidence to criticize an African American in the Oval Office.

Cornell Belcher, an African-American pollster who was an adviser to Obama's campaign, said the "post-racial" notion after the election of 2008 simply overstated reality. "Blacks and whites still continue to vote differently in this country," Belcher says. "Obama won not because he strongly did better among white voters. He didn't. He won 2 more percent of white voters than Kerry. Race matters really do still matter. I think Fenty's overwhelming initial win in D.C. blurred the continued racial bifurcation in the city and fed into the post-racial narrative that many of us wanted to feed, even if we really didn't believe it deep down inside." (For more on the political and economic transformation of Washington D.C., see this Root story.)


After this fall's elections, even after Obama's election, the 100-member Senate will likely have zero black members (Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois is not seeking re-election) and two Latinos. An emboldened Tea Party will take on President Obama in greater force in 2012, illustrating a racial divide on the perceptions of his presidency. Many of the black members in the House will come from majority-black districts.

At the same time, candidates like Scott could win without race being an issue in their elections or, as Scott called it in a New York Times interview, "a distraction." And even as Fenty lost, other young political figures, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, remain on the rise and have cast themselves as moving beyond race.


Looking forward, when Obama runs for re-election in 2012, he will run in a country — on racial issues, at least — that has not been transformed by his presidency. Instead, his race will likely help him among black voters, perhaps hurt with some whites, but be irrelevant to many others, just as in 2008. If we live in Obama's America, it is not post-racial or racially polarized. And he'll have to navigate that more like Tim Scott than Artur Davis.

Perry Bacon Jr. writes about politics for The Washington Post.

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