The Republican Party, once a relatively progressive outfit by earlier historical standards, having played a key role in passage of the Civil Rights of 1964, was on the right side of history from the mid-1800s with the election of Abraham Lincoln up until the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and the defection of Strom Thurmond from the Democratic Party to the GOP.
For about 100 years after 1860, and even before the Civil War, the Democratic Party was the de facto breeding ground for bigotry and segregationalist thought in America, but in ’64, when about 80 percent of Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act, compared to 60 percent of Democrats, the political landscape changed (here’s a detailed look at how the party has changed over the years) — perhaps irreversibly sending the GOP down a path of kowtowing to religion and big business, resisting societal progress, denying LGBT people of their rights and instituting programs designed to line the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the poor, particularly poor blacks living in inner cities.
Indeed, for more than 30 years now, the Republican Party has operated on platforms and policies that seemed to only carry the hint of racism — implied, but not explicit; by that, I mean most lawmakers have not, by and large, come right out and said that laws related to the war on drugs and criminal justice, for instance, were implemented to lock up a disproportionate number of black people or that statutes on immigration were passed to address the “problem” of Hispanics taking jobs away from white Americans. But conservative lawmakers have, knowingly or otherwise, injected a kind of institutional racism in the post Civil Rights era. For Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” the clearest example of this is in the criminal justice system.
The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias.
According to a 2015 study from political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Jeremy Horowitz, Republican policies since 1948 have served the interests of affluent white Americans more so than any other group. Sean McElwee, with Al Jazeera America, sums up the findings:
Although they (all ethnic groups) still benefit significantly more from a Democratic president, the gap between the two parties is the smallest for whites. Hajnal and Horowitz estimate that black poverty declined by 38.6 percent under Democratic leadership, while it grew by 3 percent under Republicans. From 1948 to 2010, black unemployment fell by 7.9 percentage points under Democrats and increased by 13.7 points during Republican administrations. Black income grew by $23,281 (adjusted for inflation) under Democrats and by only $4,000 under Republicans.
“Put simply: However measured, blacks made consistent gains under Democratic presidents and suffered regular losses under Republicans,” the authors said. While there’s limited data, the findings hold true for Latinos and Asians.
It appears at first glance that Republicans actively transfer income to whites through government. Of course, there could be another explanation for this phenomenon. In a study published last July, Princeton economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson found that from 1947 to 2013, gross domestic product, employment, corporate profits and productivity grew faster under Democrats than Republicans. The authors also noted that unemployment and deficits shrank and the economy climbed out of recession in less time under Democrats.
The following graph shows how ethnic groups have fared economically under Democratic administrations versus Republican presidents through 2010:
In further support of these points, Robert Smith, political science professor with San Francisco State University, argued in his 2010 book, “Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They Are the Same,” that while modern conservatives may not be racists outright or in general, the policies they support and enact produce “the same effect as racism”:
Racism in the United States … is systemic – a complex, interdependent, interactive series of behavioral and ideational components. This “systemic racism” is reflected in the unjustly gained economic resources and political power of whites; empirically in a complex array of anti-black practices; and in the ideology of white supremacy and the attitudes of whites that developed in order to rationalize the system.
This complex systemic phenomenon is what African American thought challenges and African American movements have sought to overthrow. Conservatives, however, have sought to maintain it, or, at best, to change it gradually, always prioritizing stability over justice. This then, historically and situationally, is what in the first instance makes conservatism and racism in America the same.
Now, this shows the effects of GOP policies and ideologies when Republican lawmakers, politicians and conservative talking heads are at their most well-behaved. Enter Donald Trump, Ann Coulter and the legion of followers who, with the bigoted winds at their sails, aren’t afraid (anymore) to tell us what they really think.
What is new with the 2016 election, then, is a return of blatant, out-in-the-open racism and bigotry reminiscent of the old Dixiecrats of the mid-20th century. What is new is that racist and xenophobic sentiments are coming, not from some obscure third party candidate, but from the GOP frontrunner in an election to determine the leader of the free world. What is new is that Trump is on pace to get more primary votes than any candidate in American history.
Where to begin with Trump? He generalized that a whole wave of Hispanic immigrants contained untold numbers of rapists and drug dealers and flippantly conceded that “some” might be good people. He declared that he was going to force a sovereign nation to pay for a wall along the border, erroneously assuming that Mexicans, presumed to be cowering in fear, were just going to bow to the will of a power white guy in America.
He said he would turn away Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the United States, has called for a “total and complete ban” of Muslims entering the United States and used his followers’ irrational fears about Muslims to support a kind of isolationism even inside our borders. Here’s what he had to say about the refugees in April:
We don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know where they’re from, they have no documentation. We all have hearts and we can build safe zones in Syria – and we’ll get the Gulf states to put up the money, we’re not putting up the money – but I’ll get that done.
Lock your doors folks, okay, lock your doors. There’s no documentation. We have our incompetent government people letting them in by the thousands, and who knows, maybe it’s ISIS. You see what happens with two people that became radicalized in California, where they shot and killed all their coworkers. Not with me, folks, it’s not happening with me.
I’m not one to cry “Islamophobia” over criticisms of Islam as a religion or set of bad ideas. I have been as critical of Islam as just about any other religion except Christianity, but here Trump is obviously not running down Islamic thought or doctrines but implying that not only could ISIS members be “embedded” in groups of refugees, but the refugees themselves are so weak intellectually and spiritually that they might, at the turn of a switch, fall under the spell of ISIS and become radicalized, rather than recognizing that the couple in California was an extremely isolated case and hundreds of thousands of American Muslims worship peacefully every day in this country. In fact, Trump’s odious remarks on Muslims may have actually backfired, as significant numbers of the 3.3 million Muslims in America have been energized to get out and vote against Trump in the election.
But perhaps most damning of all was Trump’s not so inconspicuous flirtation with modern white supremacy by failing to disavow the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke and other racist groups that pledged fealty to him. Ludicrously, he initially claimed that he needed to do “more research” before commenting on David Duke and the KKK – more research? – and only when pressed did he rebuff these hate groups, although the rebuffing seemed more obligatory than heartfelt, signaling to the rest of us that Trump will apparently take votes anywhere he can get them and from literally anyone.
To add fuel to the fire, an avowed white supremacist named William Daniel Johnson was originally signed up as a delegate for Trump’s campaign from California, but later resigned, telling reporters that Trump campaign officers “don’t need the baggage.” Moreover, Trump’s rallies have included a virtual horde of white nationalists, apparently finally feeling newly empowered to crawl out of whatever sad and bitter life they have in the hinterlands of America in order to gin up some fresh hate against black folks and other ethnic groups.
For his part, Trump has said he is not a racist and doesn’t want the support of white supremacists, but given the numerous lies and half truths emitting from his mouth nearly on a daily basis, it’s hard to say whether he is being genuine or not on that point, or frankly, on anything else, especially so, since his campaign has admitted that he has just been “playing a part” in his “brash, bigoted, bullying” persona, as described by The Washington Post.
What we know for sure, however, is that his rhetoric is acutely responsible for stoking the flames of racism and bigotry in this country and continuing the work began by the Tea Party in the late 2000s, as the GOP’s failure to neuter the intractable strain of populism in its own ranks now threatens its existence.
[Cover photo credit: John Cole, Scranton Times-Tribune]