Racism and the Republicans

Not everyone agrees with the argument I outlined last week about how central white identity politics (or, less kindly, white supremacism) has become to the Republican Party. For example, my friend Lorenzo at Skepticlawyer argues that although white racists certainly migrated to the GOP in the late twentieth century, they didn’t get much in return. Trump was therefore an outlier rather than an expression of the party’s essence; his support emerged “not among people the Republican Party had successfully actively engaged, but folk that it had not.”

But even he acknowledges, albeit in parentheses, that “voting law shenanigans remain a hardy perennial.” His reference is to a case decided last week, North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory, in which a federal Court of Appeals unanimously struck down a North Carolina voting law, passed by a Republican legislature with the clear intention of disenfranchising black (Democrat) voters.

The court was explicit in its diagnosis of what was going on:

The record makes clear that the historical origin of the challenged provisions in this statute is not the innocuous back-and-forth of routine partisan struggle … Rather, the General Assembly enacted them in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting.

In many ways, the challenged provisions constitute solutions in search of a problem. The only clear factor linking these various “reforms” is their impact on African American voters. The record thus makes obvious that the “problem” the majority in the General Assembly sought to remedy was emerging support for the minority party. Identifying and restricting the ways African Americans vote was an easy and effective way to do so.

This cannot be dismissed as a single rogue state. The measures that were struck down – stringent photo ID requirements, restriction of pre-poll and absentee voting, abolition of same-day enrolment and pre-enrolment – have become common currency for Republicans throughout the country, especially since the Supreme Court scrapped the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Similar moves have been invalidated recently in Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

Nor is there any sign of repentance in North Carolina in the face of such a stern judicial rebuke. On the contrary, Republican legislative leaders accused the federal judges of making a partisan ruling designed to engineer the election of Hillary Clinton.

One might argue that these efforts, however objectionable they might be, are not evidence of actual racism: that Republicans have tried to disenfranchise black voters not because they are black, but because they vote Democrat. In other words, that race is simply a proxy for voting intention, not an independent factor in their thinking.

But the point is that race has become so central to the partisan divide that in practice it is impossible to make this distinction. Nativists might say that blacks and Hispanics are a threat because they vote Democrat, or that Democrats are a threat because they are the party of blacks and Hispanics; the two formulations are interchangeable. Racist measures produce a racist party; a racist party will produce racist measures.

Pundits who want to understand the rise of Trump need to spend less time listening to conservative intellectuals in Washington, and more time listening to the legislators of North Carolina.

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