It’s all about race. It always has been in America and it appears that it continues to be the case. Three events in the news this week, the House cuts food stamps and refuses to act on immigration, along with the acquittal of George Zimmerman (Trayvon Martin), demonstrate that we have not achieved the race-neutral or color-blind society that so many believe we have achieved.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." He was prophetic. America’s struggle with race and the legacy would dominate the 20th century. First it would be the legacy of separate but equal and the squashing of voting rights with Jim Crow. Then it was Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement that produced the 1964 Civil Rights, Act, the 1965 Voting rights Act, and affirmative action. It looked like progress had been made and as 2001 arrived some argued that this would be the century of a post-racial America. At least that seemed to be the prognosis with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Yet the illusion of a post-racial America was always greater than the reality. Despite progress on many fronts, the color-line and race remain a powerful reality in America even before the events of the last week. Schools as segregated today as they were in 1954 when the Supreme Court issued its Brown v Board of Education decision that supposedly ended separate but equal. Residential segregation, especially in the north, remains high. Racial profiling by police, which was a major issue until 9/11, persists, and the racial disparities in terms of educational outcomes, incarceration, wealth, and income, persist. We continue to live in what political scientist Andrew Hacker described as Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, and Unequal.
The backlash against civil rights was manifest in the war against drugs. It also has played out in opposition to the Motor Vote Act, claims of voter fraud, and efforts to institute voter ID. Hostility to welfare in the 1990s was all about race, especially with the mythic welfare queen symbolized as an African-American woman. And arguments that affirmative action was reverse discrimination and unnecessary because we had entered a new era where race did not matter failed to appreciate how even with affirmative action people of color–especially African Americans–were still under-represented in colleges and universities across the country.
Even Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 pointed to the continuing legacy of race. Yes he won, but the racial polarization of voting was significant with 98% of African-Americans voting for him and a majority of whites in 2012 for Romney. In 2008 there is evidence were he not Black Obama would have won even bigger than he did. Obama won despite his race.
And then the Supreme Court weighed in. In June it issued two opinions, one on affirmative action, one on voting rights, that vastly limited the ability of schools to diversity and the federal government to police states that seek to impede minority political rights. As I suggested in an earlier column, we are witnessing the end of the second civil rights era and the coming of the second great disenfranchisement.
And now the events of the last week. First, the Republican House makes it clear that it will not move on immigration and it passed a farm bill without authorizing food stamps. Both moves are simply base politics. The current base of the Republican party is old, white, and conservative. It is hostile to taxes, immigration, and just doesn’t get it on race. Opposition to immigration and food stamps will probably not cost Republican House members as votes in 2014, and instead it will help them. With so few swing districts in America, few Republicans will fear voter retribution if they voted the way they did. Instead, they stave off conservative challenges and shore up their political base.
Of course, such a strategy is of a short time horizon. American demographics are changing and this vote does nothing to help the GOP reach out to Hispanics and other racial minorities who will become the new majority in America. Even many in the GOP recognized the need to move on race, as evidenced by the 2013 Republican study entitled The Growth and Opportunity Project. Yet getting a party to change to appeal to a new base when the old base remains hostile is nearly impossible. The decision on immigration is simply another way that the GOP continues to shoot themselves in the foot.
The vote on food stamps is fascinating. First, it is a story about welfare. In passing the farm bill, the subsidies that have been approved overwhelming go not to the family farmer but to big agribusinesses. Big corporate farms–generally owned by whites–again get their welfare. Yet food stamps–welfare for the poor and middle class–get nothing. The GOP continue to think that food stamps are only for the undeserving poor–the 47%ers–who are mainly racial minorities, but the reality is more whites, including suburbanites after the 2008 crash, get food stamps. Again, such a vote endears the GOP to their base but does little to reach out to the real America who struggles.
Finally, is anyone really surprised by the Zimmerman acquittal? It was almost like an anti OJ Simpson trial. Race mattered in both but in different ways. With OJ, it was the rarity of a Black man acquitted in the murder of a white woman. But here it was the acquittal of a person accused of killing an African-American. Granted that Zimmerman was part Hispanic, but the case was really painted as a white-black one. Five white women and one woman of color were on the jury. It was a jury where race was an issue to start with. Studies suggest that it is hard for a lone juror to resist others if there is not another person supporting her. Six-person juries are less likely to find a second dissenter. My point is that if race was a factor among the jury and its composition, a six-person jury made it more likely that a single person of color would find it hard to change the deliberations dynamics than were there a larger jury with more people of color on it. Second, the stand your ground law in Florida made it hard to convict. The law significantly favors the use of guns to defend. Third, the defense effectively used race throughout the trial, playing on fears of out of control black teenagers and crime to scare an all-female jury. It was just predictable.
Du Bois’ color-line has not really vanished. It continues to be about race.