For some terribly naïve people, the election four years ago of the nation’s first black president signaled the end of divisive race consciousness in American life. Yeah, right.
By now, as the 2012 presidential campaign enters the home stretch, that willfully deceptive notion has been laid completely to rest. And, as if to drive a stake through its heart, Donald R. Kinder and Allison Dale-Riddle, a pair of Michigan University political scientists, point out in their new book The End of Race? Obama, 2008, and Racial Politics in America that racism was very much a factor in that historic campaign and election.
Their analysis of the 2008 primary and general election led them to conclude that “if not for racism, Barack Obama would have won in a landslide.” But that’s not all. Kinder, a professor of psychology and political science, and Dale-Riddle, a doctoral candidate in political science, carry their argument several, surprising steps farther, suggesting that “racial resentment—a modern form of racism that has superseded the old-fashioned biological variety—is a potent political force.”
In other words, race still matters in politics and some politicians (or their operatives) aren’t about to swear off a tactic that they believe works to their advantage. But they are reluctant to confess to it.
So who’s playing the race card?
If MSNBC’s talk show host Chris Matthews is correct, then it’s the Republican party. In an unprecedented verbal attack during Monday’s “Morning Joe,” Matthews accused Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and the Romney campaign of subtle use of racial fears to appeal to white voters. As evidence, he criticized the Romney campaign ad that inaccurately claims President Barack Obama ended work requirements in the welfare reform law.
But Matthews really went after the campaign aide for “giggling” over a birther joke that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made during a campaign stop last week in Michigan. “That cheap shot … was awful,” he said. “It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card … you are playing that ethnic card there.”
Not to be outdone, the Republicans fired back. In what might be considered a jiu-jitsu move, the Republican governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, said Democrats are making a show of his party’s campaign issues in a reverse-racist effort to urge reluctant black and Latino voters to support the president. “Name a campaign in the last 25 years where the Dems didn’t play the race card,” Gov. Barbour told the website BuzzFeed. “They feel this unbelievable need to turn out their base.”
Gov. Barbour, who knows what he’s talking about, is accurately describing how and why conservative politicians employ negative and coded racist appeals. It’s a dog-whistle, a signal or sound that appeals to the ears of those who are inclined to hear its message. And it allows the person making such appeals a fig leaf to clothe their nakedness—including counter-charges of playing the race card.
We’ve seen this movie before: When President Ronald Reagan talked about welfare queens, or President George H. W. Bush promoted a scary Willie Horton, or former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) showed the unemployed white hands as a victim of affirmative action, the coded message was clearly understood by their base of conservative, white, older, and largely male voters. In short, it was an arrow to the heart of the Republican base.
Gov. Barbour, however, is wrong to equate their transparent strategy with what the Democrats are doing. Scan the faces in the crowd at this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Then, compare the pictures that will come from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte the following week. You will see why immediately.
Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win without the South, makes just this point in a recent Salon.com article:
It’s Republican National Convention time again, a quadrennial televised spectacle during which the national party rounds up and then trots out as many minorities and women as possible in an attempt to convince viewers that Republicans have achieved a level of racial and gender diversity that, in fact, exist only during such showcase moments. At conventions past, this charade meant giving Lt. Gov. Michael Steele or Defense Secretary Colin Powell key speaking duties, or deploying Liddy Dole with a microphone in hand to work the aisles of the convention floor, while off-screen the Tom DeLays and Jim DeMints host pricey, off-stage cocktail parties.
Given the demographic changes sweeping our nation, conservative activists are fighting mightily against social changes that they can’t reverse. But don’t take my word for this. Consider former Vice President Dan Quayle, who recently told The New York Times’s Adam Nagourney that Republicans must be broader and more inclusive to survive in the future, which means getting away from dog-whistle racism. But hear the conservative Quayle fully:
The Republican Party needs to re-establish its philosophy of the big tent with principles. The philosophy you hear from time to time, which is unfortunate, is one of exclusion rather than inclusion. You have to be expanding the base, expanding the party, because compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a minority party.
Race baiting to appeal to a dying base is the futile refuge for a politician who has no place else to turn.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.