The recent controversy over remarks made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has pushed the issue of racism onto front pages everywhere, inspiring some to investigate the political party lines of racism.
Measuring racism is difficult, and so there is an element of uncertainty in any result. Often, “social desirability bias” — the desire to give socially acceptable, if dishonest, answers — may play a role in answering survey questions, according to Nate Silver and Allison McCann of Five Thirty-Eight.
“If the partisan gap in racial attitudes toward blacks has widened slightly in the past few years, it may be because white racists have become more likely to identify themselves as Republican, and not because those Americans who already identified themselves as Republican have become any more racist,” Silver and McCann wrote. “Our focus was only on racial attitudes as expressed by white Americans toward black Americans (of course, racism can also exist between and among other racial groups).”
That being said, the results of Five Thirty-Eight’s polls suggest that white Republicans score higher on the “index of negative racial attitudes” than white Democrats by about 8 percent, with 19 percent of white Democrats holding negative racial attitudes and 27 percent of white Republicans.
“There are white racists in both parties,” Silver and McCann conclude. “By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties. They probably represent a slightly larger minority of white Republicans than white Democrats.”
Conservative writer Rachel Lu of The Federalist, though, is tired of what she sees as constant, unfounded accusations of racism from the left.
“Liberals need racist foes to vanquish,” she wrote. “Most of the time they have to resort to finding them where they obviously aren’t there.”
Lu went on to outline the mentality she believes leads liberals to accuse conservatives of racism.
“To conservatives, it seems crazy and wildly uncharitable to dismiss their (well-grounded) views as manifestations of an irrational animus against ethnic minorities,” she said. “But to liberals, this seems reasonable, because embedded deep within the liberal worldview is the idea that at the end of the day all political activity can be seen as part of a story about warring classes.”
That idea that all politics are about class warfare is far from the truth, said Lu. One element of our racially charged political dialogue that is true, however, is that it escalated when Obama took office.
In Silver and McCann’s study, they wrote that “If there’s a discouraging trend, it’s not so much that negative racial attitudes toward blacks have increased in these polls, but that they’ve failed to decrease under Obama, as they did so clearly for most of the past three decades.”
According to Ezra Klein of Vox, Obama is the reason that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided on race today than in 1985.”
Klein cited a graph comparing Republican and Democrat views on current events involving race, specifically Donald Sterling’s remarks, whether “12 Years a Slave” should win an Oscar, and the results of the Zimmerman verdict.
“There's a 42-point partisan gap on whether some racist oaf should be forced to sell the Clippers,” said Klein. “There's a 38-point partisan gap on whether a searing film about slavery should win an Oscar. There's a 48-point gap on a Florida murder trial.”
Racial attitudes have changed post-Obama, Klein argued, noting that in 1985 Democrats and Republicans were much more united on issues of race — even the O.J. Simpson verdict only saw a difference in opinions of 9 percent.
The 2008 election was the most racially charged election in modern America, according to Klein.
“There's been no recent campaign in which racial attitudes did as much to drive political behavior. And that's continued after the election,” he said, “[and] far from ushering in a post-racial period in American life, Obama's presidency has led to both political issues becoming more racialized and racial issues becoming more politicized.”
Others believe that we are addressing the wrong type of racism entirely. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic argues that the real dangers are not the Donald Sterlings of the world or an increase in negative racial attitudes since Obama was elected, but the much more subtle and less immediately offensive “elegant racism.”
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“Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring,” he wrote. “It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism.”
Coates believes that this elegant racism is much more deeply embedded in our culture and more dangerous than Sterling’s brand of blatant racism. Blatant racism is conveniently easy to condemn and combat, he wrote, but “meanwhile racism, elegant, lovely, monstrous, carries on."
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2