Politics of race never quite what they seem

I’ve avoided writing anything about the George Zimmerman trial and acquittal, partly because it’s depressing but also because I didn’t feel as if it told us anything particularly new or interesting. The United States has got a racial problem – well, gee, who knew?

Even the right’s fervent attempts to deny that the verdict had anything to do with race had an unreal quality to them, as if anyone could seriously believe that a Florida jury would have reached the same conclusion if the racial characteristics of victim and defendant were reversed.

But now there’s an interesting angle to look at. The Pew Research Center has polled Americans’ reactions to the verdict, and Nate Cohn at the New Republic had the bright idea of taking the detail of that polling and comparing it to the Obama-Romney poll results from the 2012 election (actually voting intention, not exit polling as the headline claims).

The results are in many respects eerily similar. Both in the aggregate number and in the breakdowns by age, race and gender, the proportions supporting Obama and those expressing dissatisfaction with Zimmerman’s acquittal match closely. The Republican-Democrat divide is of course sharper with the former, but it’s still very sharp with the latter: 68% of Democrats expressed dissatisfaction, but only 20% of Republicans.

None of that is really surprising, but it’s quite striking to have it empirically confirmed.

Other features of the polling, however, are less predictable. Obama’s support, readers will recall, was strongly regionalised, particularly among white voters: strong in the north-east, weaker in the mid-west and the west, very weak in the south. But the Zimmerman case does not reproduce this pattern, at least according to Pew: whites in the mid-west were just as satisfied with the verdict as those in the south, and those in the north-east only slightly less so.

Cohn points out that there is a geographical divide, but it comes in a different place: in the west, white voters are much less satisfied with the verdict. He speculates that this could be because there are few blacks in the west, so racial issues are less polarising. (One wonders how much of the pattern would have been repeated if Zimmerman’s victim had been Hispanic rather than black.)

Of course it’s just one poll, so it’s always possible that an individual result could be misleading.

There are other features that Cohn doesn’t mention. An obvious one is religion: in the presidential election there was a strong partisan divide, with Obama winning the votes of those without religious affiliation by a huge margin, 64-26. But there is no such effect in the Zimmerman case; that group is only a couple of points different from the general population.

(Another detail that Cohn doesn’t mention is that not only are Republicans much more supportive of the Zimmerman verdict, but “tea party” Republicans are more supportive still. Further backing for those, like me, who have been saying that the leitmotiv of the tea party is authoritarianism, not its opposite, and that it’s an especially inviting place for white racists.)

In other words, it looks as if race and politics are closely intertwined, but still operate independently. There are important cultural reasons why one may support or oppose Obama that don’t entail any particular position on racial issues; conversely, there are race-related factors that influence one’s view on something like the Zimmerman trial but don’t flow through to partisan politics.

That doesn’t mean that race isn’t a continuing problem for the Republican Party. But it means we need to be careful about assessing its implications.

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