What happened to post-racial America?
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a long-standing racial controversy – without any reverberations on the presidential campaign. This reveals a lot about emerging racial politics of the Obama era.
The court is deciding whether public universities can consider race in their admissions process, and a broad ruling here could make affirmative action illegal across state and federal governments. That means, among other things, less diversity in the halls of power.
The solicitor general for America’s first African-American president cautioned against that fate. The United States needs affirmative action, he told the court, because it helps groom “effective leaders in an increasingly diverse society.”
Despite this high-profile case and President Barack Obama’s personal intervention, however, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is ducking this entire discussion.
His campaign has refused to disclose its position on affirmative action, even after recent inquiries from the Wall Street Journal and Politico. Unless the issue is force-fed to Romney on live television – in the remaining debates or another interview – the Republican nominee will have navigated an entire presidential campaign without touching the most significant racial policy dispute of the year.
That’s not only a remarkable dodge – it’s a big shift for the GOP playbook.
Conservative Republicans used to eagerly seek any chance to campaign on affirmative action. The South had evolved into a solid Republican bloc after President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act, opening the polls to African-Americans throughout the region. Even when the topic was not in the news or the courts, Republicans injected it as an appeal to white resentment over racial opportunity programs.
Former Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina perfected that approach in 1990, with an infamous attack ad accusing an African-American opponent of supporting “racial quotas.” Never mind that the Supreme Court had already declared quotas illegal.
While Romney has embraced many hardline conservative positions – from repealing “Obamacare” to deficit spending – he wants no part of a white-pity party.
This is because Romney now stands on rapidly shifting terrain. While many people focus on how Obama’s election has affected the nation’s race relations, his presidency has also catalyzed a striking crackup in the Republican Party. The fact that Barack Obama is sitting in the Oval Office has profoundly polarized views on race and diversity within the GOP.
Many ambitious Republicans increasingly practice the very affirmative action they once derided.
They use diversity as a plus factor – just like the university and military programs under debate at the Supreme Court – when recruiting and promoting candidates and party leaders.
It was no accident that the Republican National Convention featured so many minority stars in Tampa. The proactive emphasis on diverse leadership was especially notable, since the party’s national membership is 87 percent white, according to recent Pew surveys. (The Democratic Party is roughly 61 percent white.)
Or that after Obama’s victory, GOP grassroots delegates elected the party’s first African-American chairman, Michael Steele. (He joined a brief supporting affirmative action in this week’s case.) Or that conservative leaders have openly touted the diverse backgrounds of candidates like Ted Cruz, Herman Cain and Marco Rubio as a positive part of their selection criteria.
But it’s not all rainbows in red states, for a more bigoted group of conservatives emerged in the public spotlight over the past four years.
Confronted with an African-American president, these opponents have little use for the usual coded signals of racial policy attacks. Forget the plausible deniability of “quotas” and “welfare queens.” That rhetoric seems almost arcane now, supplanted by a vitriolic, obsessive grievance with the black president himself – his country of origin, his “otherness” and virtually anything about him that circles back to his race. The man is more evocative than any symbols.
This bigoted faction is not a majority of the party, to be clear. It was not large enough to exercise a veto in the presidential primary, and it’s probably not ascendant. But this group of conservatives is still relevant and highly motivated.
Consider one remarkable example.
Of all of the videos released by the Obama campaign this year – a blizzard of ads, clips and documentary footage devoured by fans – the most viewed item is a seemingly anodyne constituency video launching “African-Americans for Obama.” It drew a huge 3.5 million views over the past eight months. Why?
Viewer data shows that the audience came from outraged referrals by Fox News, conservative websites and Facebook. On YouTube, viewers’ votes “disliking” the video ran an overwhelming 14 to 1, while thousands of Fox visitors tagged it “offensive,” apparently upset that the president talked about his African-American support.
Beyond eclipsing all of Obama’s other material, the video also drew double the views of the Romney campaign’s most popular video this year.
A Democratic campaign aide recently marveled over how such intense racial animus could outstrip Obama’s large online fan base. But it is not that surprising. Racial delusions also animate the birthers – who made the article on Obama’s birth certificate “the most widely read” item that PolitiFact has ever published in its fact-checking history.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy, of course, for these two racialized items to land atop the pile of content generated in a yearlong, media-obsessed, billion-dollar election.
Romney, in the end, is caught between those rabid voters and a Republican Party aiming to represent an increasingly diverse electorate. Since any position on affirmative action could hurt him, he has decided to take no position at all.
Neither the president nor the Supreme Court has that luxury.