Race Talk and the Government Shut Down
Since last night I have been writing and re-writing this blog about race and the fiscal crisis. My link to the New York Times page keeps changing – though the content remains essentially the same. As the Senate moves toward a deal to reopen the government and avert a default, the Times reports that the House balks.
What explains the continued opposition to a deal, despite the seemingly obvious catastrophic consequences of a government default? Racial anxiety may be playing a role, suggests Shutdown Power Play: Stoking Racism, Fear of Culture Change to Push Anti-Government Agenda. The article describes an analysis by Democracy Corp (a research group led by Stan Greenberg and James Carville) of focus groups with three groups comprised of Evangelicals, Tea Party Republicans, and moderates. The Democracy Corp concludes that “base supporters” of the Republican Party fear that they are losing to a Democratic Party of big government that is creating programs that “mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the Republican Party.”
So here we are again. Encouraging mistaken beliefs that only a particular few benefit from government programs – and perpetuating the continued division of “us” and “them” on racial grounds has long been a political strategy. Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” is a stereotype that continues to live on in some corners. Even though welfare, like most government programs, including the Affordable Care Act, stands to benefit large numbers of whites. Indeed, according to 2011 census figures, 46.3% of all uninsured people are non-Hispanic white while 16% are black.
Why has the blog taken so long? Because the counter-strategy is challenging.
The instinctive response is to call out those distorting the facts as racist. This tactic has the benefit of moral clarity, and is emotionally satisfying. But calling out those who oppose the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as “racist” will not move people in the political middle. This group is likely to consider someone “racist” only if they publicly disclose old-school-George-Wallace-like animus toward people of color. The political debate about the role of government in people’s lives—particularly the less fortunate—is much murkier territory, filled with subterranean, unspoken dynamics and assumptions. It does not resemble the image of ardent segregationists proudly flaunting their bigotry.
But simply ignoring the role race is still playing and pretending that we are all “color-blind” is also inadequate. Social science research has shown that most people carry a set of stereotypical assumptions about race – and that these stereotypes are most likely to influence decision making when race is right below the surface but not expressly mentioned. A set of juror studies by Sam Sommers and Phoebe Ellsworth provides powerful evidence of this phenomenon (for a short description of these studies, see this recent piece by Sommers).
The juror studies suggest that when mock jurors confront inter-racial incidents in which racially charged language is used, white jurors were no more likely to convict a black than a white defendant. When an incident involved a white victim and a black defendant but was otherwise not racially charged, white jurors were more likely to convict a black defendant than a white defendant. Why? Because only in the incident in which racial language was used were white jurors conscious that race may come into play — which triggered them to work to be fair. Donald Bucolo and Ellen Cohn in their study, Playing the race card: Making race salient in defense opening and closing statements, found similar effects in inter-racial trials: when defense attorneys explicitly mention race, white juror bias toward black defendants is reduced.
The findings in the juror studies are heartening – they provide an empirical foundation for the idea that most white people want to be racially egalitarian. And they suggest a way forward in policy discussions even if they do not provide play-by-play instructions. The goal, as john powell aptly states, is to allow people to maintain a self-concept as egalitarian while drawing attention to behaviors that are inconsistent with those values.
I have found listeners of all races to be extremely receptive to this social science in talks at public libraries as well as law schools. White listeners express relief that they are not being accused of racism – and once this anxiety is alleviated, the defensiveness melts away. Listeners of all races seem very interested in the facts about who benefits from government programs and how race operates in the unconscious.
This material is harder to translate into a sound-bite. But it seems to be the best way forward to an honest conversation about race.