DANIEL HENNINGER: THE RACIALIZING OF AMERICAN POLITICS
This is the most violated saying in American public life:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s acclaimed call in 1963 for a colorblind society has been displaced, at least in our politics, by an obsession with racial categories. That is the meaning of racialization.
It may be over four decades since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but whenever America votes today, the exit polls can’t move fast enough to divide voters by the color of their skin. Mere moments after the 2012 exit polls were released, a conventional wisdom congealed across the media that the Republican Party was “too white.”
Let us posit that this subject wouldn’t have been raised if the bottom hadn’t fallen out of the GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote. When George W. Bush attracted 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, there was no cry that the Republican Party was “too white.” The GOP’s problem with Hispanics today is a tangle of issues involving the law, labor and assimilation that is hardly reducible to the accusation that the party is too white.
In virtually every instance, the idea that the Republican Party is “too white” is dropped with almost no discussion of what exactly that means. The phrase is being pinned like a scarlet “W” on anyone who didn’t vote for the Democrats’ nominee. It’s a you-know-what-we-mean denunciation. Its only meaning is racial.
The exit polls—asking voters to self-identify as white, black, Hispanic, Asian—inevitably drive any postelection analysis into this racial swamp. High-school seniors applying to colleges have been told for at least 20 years to define themselves inside a racial or ethnic box. Elizabeth Warren spent a lot of energy in Massachusetts attempting a Houdini-like escape from one such ancient box.
During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wrestled over race, first in January when Bill Clinton was accused of racial signaling during the South Carolina primary, and in March when Mrs. Clinton repudiated the late Geraldine Ferraro for referencing Mr. Obama’s color. A New York Times report then said Mr. Obama was “puzzled” at this preoccupation with race and sex. It quoted Mr. Obama as saying: “I don’t want to deny the role of race and gender in our society. They’re there, and they’re powerful. But I don’t think it’s productive.”
A welcome thought. The truth is that no prominent Democrat since Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been willing to sustain opposition to this constant racializing of American politics and culture.
In the famous 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding the University of Michigan’s race-based admission policies, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in support: “The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”
In 2008’s election, many Republicans and independents voted for Mr. Obama to put a final nail in the coffin of Justice O’Connor’s racial anxieties. The millions of them who then cast votes against Mr. Obama in 2012 did so almost wholly because of the status of the economy after four years of his presidency. No matter. They lost in 2012 because they’re “too white.”
This country’s historic antidote to racial and ethnic obsessing is assimilation into the middle class, no matter what foreign country or continent sits in front of your hyphen. To this end the Republican candidate offered a solution led by private enterprise, and the Democrat said government should create the path forward. Mr. Obama won and has the four years he asked for to finally make good on his economics. But even this common goal degrades into a cudgel in the president’s politics by category: tax cuts for the middle class but not for “the well-off.”
The Democrats’ insistence on pandering to political categories is a dead end for the country. Rather than spinning their own Rubik’s Cube of race, gender and ethnicity, Republicans should start growing their share of the electorate by doing a better job of telling people how to succeed in the American melting pot, a wonderful organizing idea now mocked as a “myth” by progressive Democrats.
No one can beat the Democrats at the politics of social division. Instead, the GOP should tell prospective voters that no matter what their country of origin or happenstance of birth, their success in the U.S. will depend less on celebrating their assigned category than on supporting political policies that expand economic opportunity. A Republican Party that fails to tell that story in a way anyone can grasp is a party that will never escape the box the other side dropped it into on Nov. 7.
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