Why Race Has Been the Real Story of Obama’s Presidency All Along

Lengthy but interesting article by Jonathan Chait on the enduring legacy of slavery, and how it plays into the political and ideological divides in the US. Worth reading:

And the truth is almost too brutal to be acknowledged. A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery….

And yet—as vital as this revelation may be for understanding conservatism, it still should not be used to dismiss the beliefs of individual conservatives. Individual arguments need and deserve to be assessed on their own terms, not as the visible tip of a submerged agenda; ideas can’t be defined solely by their past associations and uses.

Liberals experience the limits of historically determined analysis in other realms, like when the conversation changes to anti-Semitism. Here is an equally charged argument in which conservatives dwell on the deep, pernicious power of anti-Semitism hiding its ugly face beneath the veneer of legitimate criticism of Israel. When, during his confirmation hearings last year for Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel came under attack for having once said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” conservatives were outraged. (The Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens: “The word ‘intimidates’ ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent.”) Liberals were outraged by the outrage: The blog Think Progress assembled a list of writers denouncing the accusations as a “neocon smear.” The liberal understanding of anti-­Semitism is an inversion of conservative thinking about race. Liberals recognize the existence of the malady and genuinely abhor it; they also understand it as mostly a distant, theoretical problem, and one defined primarily as a personal animosity rather than something that bleeds into politics. Their interest in the topic consists almost entirely of indignation against its use as slander to circumscribe the policy debate.

Why Race Has Been the Real Story of Obama’s Presidency All Along — New York Magazine.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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