To whom does race matter?

Does race really matter in American politics? And if so, to whom? For some time there has been a disconnect between the party that wins most of the black votes (the Democrats) and the party that promotes black individuals into powerful positions (the Republicans).

Who are the most influential African Americans today? Clarence Thomas and Condoleeza Rice are the first names that spring to mind. Of course, that is partly because there is currently a Republican administration. But, in eight years, did Bill Clinton make cabinet appointments of the stature of Rice or Colin Powell?

Where are the next generation of black leaders coming from? One possibility is Senator Barack Obama (D. IL). But equally likely would be upcoming Republican gubernatorial candidates, Lynn Swann and Ken Blackwell, of Pennsylvania and Ohio, or Michael Steele, currently Lt. Governor of Maryland, and seeking the open Senate seat there.

Recent research has raised some interesting questions about the significance of race in America. On 08 June Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University and Richard Morin of the Washington Post published an article about the willingness of people to support taxpayer aid for victims of hurricane Katrina. Over 2,000 people were shown the case study of a person affected by Katrina. How much assistance, they were asked, should this person receive, and for how long? The details varied. Significantly, some people were shown the photograph of a black face to go with the story, and others a white face. It made a difference. On average, people were prepared to give more money for longer to a white victim. The difference amounted to some $1,500.

But here’s the rub. The sample of 2,000 people was not a random sample. They were mostly liberal, well-educated and white. They were overwhelmingly Democrats. The authors commented: “People cannot help stereotyping on the basis of ethnicity despite their best efforts to act unbiased and egalitarian.”

Except, apparently, if you are Republican. Follow up research published in the Post on 23 June showed that Republicans were prepared to give exactly the same amount to victims whether they were black or white. Unsurprisingly, Republicans were willing to give less money, and for shorter periods, than Democrats were. This is a clear difference between the parties. Democrats tend to prefer tax-funded solutions while Republicans prefer individuals to be independent. But on the specific question of race, Republicans were colorblind.

This follows other interesting research. In an article published on 14 April, also by Morin and also in the Post, based on research conducted by Yale, we learned that white Republicans are 25% more likely to vote Democrat if the Republican candidate is black. Not exactly colorblind in this instance. But it turns out that white Democrats are 38% more likely to vote Republican if their candidate is black. A pretty dismal statistic for both parties, but significantly worse for the Democrats.

What’s more, black Republicans like Swann, Steele and Blackwell can compensate for lost white votes by winning black votes from the Democrats. But even white Democrats routinely win 90% of the black vote, which is hard for a black Democrat to improve on.

The party of Lincoln may not always be beyond reproach, but it still has a significant edge on the party of Jefferson Davis.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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