Donald Sterling shows the separate realities of Democrats and Republicans about race

May 1

(Danny Moloshok/AP)

This is a guest post from Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler.

The earliest polling on the Donald Sterling incident reveals a large partisan divide in public support of the NBA’s forcing him to sell the team—the league’s harshest possible punishment.  According to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, 68 percent of Democrats support a forced sale of the Los Angeles Clippers compared to just 26 percent of Republicans.

That wide partisan divide is not too surprising in light of other polls conducted this past year, which also suggested that Democrats and Republican have increasingly separate realities about race.  The first figure below shows similarly sizable partisan differences in Americans’ reactions to Sterling’s punishment, the George Zimmerman verdict, and the Academy Award for  “12 Years a Slave” (hat tip to Jonathan Chait for the latter).

Graph by Michael Tesler
Graph by Michael Tesler

Democrats and Republicans did not always see racial controversies so differently.  The figure below shows relatively modest partisan divisions in response to earlier high-profile race-related incidents. As can be seen, Democrats and Republicans responded similarly to a racially charged 1984 New York subway shooting, where Bernhard Goetz shot four African American youths who he claimed were going to mug him.  Democrats and Republicans also reacted similarly to the O.J. Simpson verdict despite the huge racial divide in perceptions of his innocence. In the case most analogous to the Sterling incident, when radio personality Don Imus made insensitive racial comments, Democrats were only 16 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say that Imus should be fired from his show.

Graph by Michael Tesler. Source: Gallup/Newsweek Poll, Feb 28-March 1, 1985. Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, October 5-7, 1995, ABC /Washington Post Poll, April 12-15, 2007.
Graph by Michael Tesler. Source: Gallup/Newsweek Poll, Feb 28-March 1, 1985. Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, October 5-7, 1995, ABC /Washington Post Poll, April 12-15, 2007.

To be sure, there are many plausible reasons why these past and present racial controversies generated such different levels of partisan polarization. A large piece of the puzzle is that racial attitudes and partisan attachments have become more closely aligned in the Obama era than they were before Obama’s rise to prominence.


Graph by Michael Tesler. Source: Pew Values Survey, Merged File.

The final figure shows that the correlation between Republican Party identification and opposition to both affirmative action and interracial dating increased sharply in Pew polls conducted during Obama’s presidency.  This increasing correlation persists even after accounting for other factors and is present in other surveys too, such as the General Social Survey and the American National Election Study.

Party identification is not the only political attitude that has become more polarized by racial attitudes in the Obama era.  Policy preferences, voting in congressional elections, and even impressions of Portuguese water dogs (the breed of the Obamas’ dogs) have all become more influenced by race-related considerations.  The growing racialization of American politics means that Democrats and Republicans will increasingly view race-infused controversies like the Zimmerman trial, the Sterling incident, and the Cliven Bundy stand-off through very different lenses.

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