Behind the Roar of Political Debates, Whispers of Race Persist

John Harwood, New York Times, October 31, 2013

President Obama last week sought to turn attention from health care to immigration—in other words, from one racially divisive issue to another.

Whites tend to hold negative views of Obamacare, while blacks tend to like it. Specifically, 55 percent of whites, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found this year, consider Mr. Obama’s health care law a bad idea, while 59 percent of blacks call it a good idea. On immigration, 51 percent of whites oppose legal status for illegal residents, but 63 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics favor it.

The statistics mirror the core philosophical division in Washington’s fierce battles over taxes, spending and debt. Whites say government does too much, while blacks and Hispanics say it should do more to meet people’s needs.

Those attitudes, and the continued growth of the nonwhite population, have produced this sometimes-overlooked result: American politics has grown increasingly polarized by race, as well as by party and ideology.

That reality promises to command more attention as the day draws closer when whites will no longer make up a majority of the population, which the Census Bureau projects will be in 2043.


Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for Mr. Clinton and other Democrats, said that recent focus groups among core Republican voters highlighted anxiety that “big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes.”

“While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities,” Mr. Greenberg wrote. “The base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country.”


Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster who advised both Presidents Bush, worries about renewed attention to racial divisions for two reasons.

One is that it could taint what he calls the Republican Party’s “legitimate argument” in favor of self-reliance and smaller government. The other is the difficulty of winning national elections if the party’s hard-line on immigration continues to alienate Hispanics. “Racism may be a part of it,” especially among working-class whites, Mr. Steeper said of the immigration stance. “The Republican Party needs to stop pandering to that.”

He added, “The Republican Party needs to throw in the towel on the immigration issue.”

The Democrats’ problem is winning over whites. At the moment that’s a challenge of governance—as Mr. Obama’s struggle to implement his health law demonstrates. “The challenge we have with the health care law is similar to the challenge we’ve had in our politics more broadly,” Mr. Obama said in a recent interview. “There have been caricatures of what we’re trying to do.”

Most uninsured Americans who will be helped by the law, he added, “are going to be white.”

The risk for the country is heightened racial tensions. Mr. Obama’s advisers play down that prospect for the long term, noting younger Americans’ instinct for tolerance. “As rising generations replace older ones,” a study by the liberal Center for American Progress concluded last week, “concerns about rising diversity will recede.”

In the meantime, Mr. Steeper hopes Republicans can persuade more Hispanics, Asian-Americans and blacks to align with their message of opportunity. “We should have two parties based on a different approach to the role of government,” he said. “I don’t want our parties to be representing racial groups.”

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