Can Republicans Talk About Race Now?

July 3, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A blogger I know (his post is here) caught Garrison Keillor in a historical inaccuracy at the beginning of last Saturday’s episode of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Commenting on recent political events, Keillor said,

Republicans came out against the Confederacy after 150 years. They came out against it. It was not a good idea. It was not a good idea: A war in behalf of the institution of slavery.

Keillor was confusing the Republicans of today with those of 1860.  Back then, anti-slavery forces were Republican, and they elected Lincoln. The war on behalf of slavery was a Democratic venture. 

In 1860, the South was pro-slavery and solidly Democratic. The vote in the presidential election makes this split very clear.

(Click on a map for a slightly larger view.)

Following the war, in that brief decade when Southern Blacks could vote in meaningful numbers, they voted for the party of Lincoln, and the South looked more Republican.  With the end of Reconstruction, the Southern vote returned to being White and Democratic, and it remained that way for a century. In 1960, the South elected mostly Democrats to the House of Representatives.

The politics of the last 50 years have reversed those colors. In 2000, all Southern electoral votes went to Bush.

There still are Democratic districts in the South, but they are blue islands in a sea of red.

One of the main reasons for this party realignment is race. Race has become a Democratic issue. It’s mostly liberals who have argued that we need to have a “conversation” about race. Only Democratic politicians speak of race as a problem requiring change. (Analogous Republican issues include taxes and defense.) Republicans have refused to acknowledge that racism still exists at all – a deliberate blindness parodied by Stephen Colbert in his right-wing persona: “I don’t see race.”

This allergic reaction to race usually comes across as callous but occasionally as just stupid. The day after the murders in Charleston, a reporter asked Jeb Bush if he thought the Charleston killings were racially motivated. The only reasonable response would be “duh” and a comparison to questions about bears’ preferences in toilet location or Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s religious affiliation. But Jeb said, “I don't know.” (story here)

We can’t be certain what Jeb had in mind at the time, but my guess is that he feared that to answer “yes” would be to admit that racism existed and was a problem. And that’s an idea you don’t want to mention if you’re trying to get Republicans to vote for you. After word of Jeb’s flub got out, a spokesman tweeted that “of course” Jeb thought the killings were racially motivated.

After the Charleston killings, some prominent Republican politicians went on record favoring the removal of Confederate flags from official sites. Some of these politicians, like Gov. Haley of South Carolina, had only a few months earlier been defending the display of that flag. Apparently, they no longer fear offending the blatant racists in their constituencies, a number which seems in any case to be declining. 

Perhaps now Republicans will be willing to enter that conversation about race. The question is: what will they say?

UPDATE July 8: When I posted this, I was unaware that the day before, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican candidate for president, had given a speech acknowledging that African Americans had been badly mistreated in the past (he described in graphic, grisly detail the lynching of a Black man in Texas 100 years ago). He also said that “there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights.”

As I suggested in an earlier post  about taking down the Confederate flag, Republican politicians may be realizing that their long-held ideas about the political dangers of acknowledging race are based on pluralistic ignorance.

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