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Selective racial innocence


I was struck by how many commenters in this thread, including some regulars who I think of as more or less reality-based, demonstrated an affection for a version of the pundit’s fallacy regarding Democrats and the south in this thread. I do think there’s a kernel of truth somewhere in this complaint–political views and ideologies are not two dimensional and single peaked, the median voter approach ignores complexities of preference distributions. It’s plausible there are instances where chasing a slice of the center-right electorate creates problems just as large as that slice you might hope to gain with other parts of one’s coalition, while doing some long term damage to the project of the Democratic message.

But commenters are saying much, much more than this. The Democrats, we’re repeatedly assured, could do just fine in the South if they had a strong candidate who articulated a strong progressive message. This is almost completely untethered from any concrete empirical claims; the first thing I’d want to see is evidence that non-voters are a) ready to be persuaded to vote by a different kind of candidate or message and b) the kind of candidate and message they’re waiting for is distinctly liberal in the context of contemporary American politics.

What’s striking to me is the extent to which people who aren’t particularly naive about America’s racial history and its implications for contemporary politics in other contexts manage to forget this context so easily when it’s convenient to do so. Southern whites have never, in significant numbers, engaged in any political project of note that required cooperation with blacks. When emancipation made it appear as though such compromise and cooperation might be necessary, they waged a campaign of terrorism to prevent it. When Roosevelt came to them with a radical in the context of American politics set of poverty alleviation measures, they made the exclusion of blacks a condition of their support. When voting rights became entrenched, 100 years late, and Southern blacks joined the coalition of the Democratic party, they abandoned the Democratic party over the course of a generation.

One can make a plausible case that race relations are, however slowly and unevenly, improving. (Or as Chris Rock more accurately puts it, that white people are getting less crazy). It is not inconceivable that Southern Whites and Blacks might cooperate on a significant political project at some point in the future. But it’s the height of naivety to assume that the only reason they’re not doing so now is that no one is coming along giving the right kind of stirring populist speeches about the public option and the 1% and more aggressive regulation of the financial sector–that there’s a rhetorical trick or policy fix that would inspire southern whites to abandon a three century old refusal to cooperate with their black neighbors.

I flipped on MSNBC briefly on the evening of the non-indictment of Garner’s killer. Ta-Nehisi Coates was briefly a guest on Chris Hayes show. Hayes was enthusiastically reporting about what appeared to him to be a moment of ideological comity against police brutality against black people, pointing to a number of prominent conservative voices expressing shock and outrage over the non-indictment. He breathlessly speculated about how maybe just maybe this will be the moment that inspires an effective movement about police violence and accountability, and asked Coates to comment on that. Coates reply was patient and a bit indulgent of Hayes’ optimism, but his answer was clear–the fight to get America to recognize the full humanity of black people is staggeringly slow, a multi-generational project, and to see it as something that needs the right media firestorm to fix isn’t a position worthy of a serious political analyst.

America’s racial history has been, and will continue to be, a major impediment to a variety of worthwhile and necessary political projects. I, too, wish there was some shortcut, some fix, some “hack”, to get around this monumental hurdle to a better, more just, more functional society. But indulging in the fantasy such a shortcut exists is a mistake, because it produces bad political analysis but also because it constitutes a failure to look at America’s racial history squarely and directly, and seeing it for what it is. The temptation to avert our gaze is understandably strong but must be resisted.

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