Many Americans are concerned about the apparent increase in open expression of racist attitudes since Donald Trump, who has made racist remarks for his entire public career, became the Republican nominee for President. Suddenly white supremacy is no longer a taboo in public. “Trump has unquestionably brought people to our ideas,” said Richard Spencer, the white-nationalist leader.
But less attention has been given to an equally noteworthy opposite trend: what Sean McElwee calls the rising racial liberalism of white Democrats. The proportion of white Democrats who attributed racial inequality to systematic discrimination remained steady for 30 years at below 50%, while more believed inequality was due to blacks’ own behavior. That changed suddenly during the Obama Presidency, and the latest surveys show a striking reversal: 54% say inequality is due to discrimination, while only 28% blame the actions of minorities themselves.
One of the defining partisan differences among voters is that Republicans continue to blame minorities for inequality. A series of Pew surveys, which confirm the shift in liberal beliefs, also show that 75% of Republicans and 79% of conservative Republicans say “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition”. Republicans are less likely than they were 20 years ago to see discrimination as a cause for blacks’ inability to “get ahead”. That is surprising, since younger Americans are more likely to blame discrimination than older ones. Education also plays a significant role: the more educated one is, the more likely to see discrimination as the cause for inequality.
What is happening to racial attitudes in America? McElwee directly compared the responses of white Democrats who had been interviewed in 2011 and in 2016. The shift is startling over such a short time: many gave different answers to questions about whether blacks should just try harder and about the long-term effects of slavery and discrimination. Twice as many agreed in 2016 that “Over the past few years, black people have gotten less than they deserve.” While all age groupings of white Democrats moved away from blaming blacks for inequality, the movement was much stronger among those under 30.
Such surveys help us to understand the beliefs of the American public, but they don’t count. What counts is the special kind of survey called voting, which determines who populates American governments and what policies they enact. Recent primary elections, leading up to the midterms in November 2018, show how these changing partisan attitudes play out in the voting booth.
Stacey Abrams, who won the Democratic primary for Georgia governor, became the first black woman nominated by a major party for governor in any state. She soundly defeated Stacey Evans, a white woman, all across Georgia, including in Forsyth County, a nearly completely white district with a long history of violent racism. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez won the Democratic primary for Texas governor, becoming the first Latina woman, as well as the first acknowledged lesbian, to win a major party gubernatorial nomination there. In Illinois, a black woman, Lauren Underwood, won more votes than the six white men in her Congressional primary combined.
This growing racial liberalism among Democrats is matched by increasing gender liberalism. The Democratic nominations in Georgia for both governor and lieutenant governor were contested by two women. The three races for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in which women were candidates were all won by the women. Up to now, Democratic women have been candidates in about half of the 149 Congressional districts that have had primaries. In 65 districts, there was at least one woman and one man in the race with no incumbent, and women were the top vote-getters in 47.
Republicans are not only much less sympathetic to blacks, they are less interested in women holding office. The battle for Georgia governor is symbolic: while two Democratic women competed, the Republican primary featured five men. Across the country, women and men competed in only 14 Republican Congressional primaries with no incumbent, and men won 11.
What will happen when Democratic women, white and non-white, compete against Republican white men in November? Will these newly diverse candidates mobilize new voters? Are independent voters leaning more toward minority and female candidates like Democrats or away from them like Republicans?
Is America heading toward greater equality or back to the past? November will tell.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 29, 2018