The year 2014 will be remembered politically for many things, among them the Republican Party’s impressive victories in the midterm elections. But as much as anything, the year was a reminder of the depth of racial tensions and divisions in America.
Killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers in several cities brought demonstrators into the streets in many more cities. Then came the fatal shooting of two New York police officers by a black man who apparently targeted them for murder, an attack that shocked the sensibilities of people of all races and worsened strains between the city’s police union and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The final days of the year have seen another racial controversy arise. This time, it was over the 2002 appearance by Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, who is now the House majority whip, before a white-supremacist group founded by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke was a frequent candidate for political office in Louisiana two decades ago.
The Scalise episode, as my colleagues Robert Costa and Philip Rucker wrote, is more than a case of one politician and one event. It is also a reminder of the complexities of race and politics in the Old and New South as that region has made a long transition from one-party Democratic rule a generation ago to today’s one-party Republican dominance.
President Obama is a symbol of the racial progress this country has made and of the distance yet to go. When he was first elected president, he said he believed that his race was as much an asset as a liability in that victory. For every person who cast a vote against him because of his race, he said, there was probably someone who voted for him because of it.
In the weeks after his 2008 victory, he told me that, based on his experience in Illinois, he was confident when he started the campaign that the country had moved far enough on racial issues for race not to be a major obstacle to winning the presidency.
Yet some of Obama’s detractors have made him the target of racially charged criticisms. His allies say that were he not the nation’s first black president, he would not be subjected to such disrespect and venom.
Where does that leave things as the new year begins? Recent polling shows a huge gap between blacks and whites on perceptions of police treatment of minorities — as well as a significant gap between white Democrats and white Republicans. This is not necessarily new, but it speaks to lasting differences that affect political decisions and party coalitions.
Obama, taking a long view, argues that the country has made significant progress and that this ought not to be forgotten at times of heightened tensions. In a reflective interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep that was released a few days ago, the president said he believes that the country is less racially divided than it was when he took office six years ago.
Obama said that the way the issue of race surfaced in 2014 was likely healthy for society. “The issue of police and communities of color being mistrustful of each other is hardly new,” he said. “That dates back a long time. It’s just something that hasn’t been talked about.”
He went on to say that the attention given to the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island may make it appear that racial divisions have worsened. But he added, “I assure you, from the perspective of African Americans or Latinos in poor communities who have been dealing with this all their lives, they wouldn’t suggest somehow that it’s worse now than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”
The swiftness with which Scalise and other House Republican leaders moved to defuse the controversy over his appearance before Duke’s group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), shows their sensitivity to being tied to anything that smacks of racially insensitive politics. Acting as quickly as they did, the leaders no doubt hope that the Scalise controversy will have mostly died down by the time lawmakers gather next week, with Republicans celebrating the fact that they now control both the House and Senate.
Still, what remains unclear is why Scalise did not immediately recognize at the time the dangers of speaking to a group whose name suggested its origins and racist interests. His friends and allies contend that he has been adept at avoiding racially polarizing actions or connections that plagued other politicians in the past.
Stephanie Grace, who has long covered Scalise in Louisiana, posted an article Tuesday night on the Web site of the New Orleans Advocate in which she said she never saw any evidence that Scalise endorsed the views of Duke’s organization. She said she has seen him work closely with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who is African American, and others in the black community.
She also wrote that Scalise once had said to her that he was like Duke without the baggage. As a result, she wrote, “I also get how the invitation wouldn’t have set off alarm bells, given that Scalise had long since made his awkward peace with the situation. In fact, by 2002, Scalise may have been so used to the idea of dealing with Duke voters that he really considered EURO just another part of his constituency, even if it was a distasteful one.“
That David Duke had a following and a constituency was undeniable, given the support he attracted in his campaigns. Conservatives like Scalise, who came along later, wanted the support of many of Duke’s supporters — even if they rejected his racist politics.
Robert Mann, who has worked for a number of Democratic elected officials from Louisiana and is now a professor at Louisiana State University, made another point in an e-mail message sent Tuesday. “Duke’s racial views were — and still are to some degree — pretty mainstream among a significant percentage of whites here,” he wrote.
It’s noteworthy that Republicans now have a diverse set of statewide elected officials in the South and elsewhere: an African American senator (Tim Scott of South Carolina), two Indian American governors (Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina), and two Hispanic governors (Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada).
Equally noteworthy is the degree to which the Republican Party still struggles to expand its voter coalition to include more minorities. That Democrats still command 90 percent of the African American vote and that Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 underscores the distance Republicans must travel.
Today, the two major parties highlight the racial gaps that exist in society. Scott Clement of The Washington Post’s polling unit looked at the racial makeup of the two political parties, based on surveys conducted in the past 15 months. In those polls, the percentage of self-identified Republicans who were white averaged 85 percent. Among Democrats, the average percentage of whites was 53 percent.
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote recently in the National Journal that, with the continuing decline in support for Democrats among working-class whites and the failure of Republicans to attract more support among minorities, “it is possible to see a future where the GOP is clearly and distinctly a white party, while Democrats are clearly a majority-minority party.”
That’s not healthy — for either party or for the nation. Changing this will be part of the challenge for the president in his final two years, for Republicans as they take control of Congress and implement their agendas in states where they have unified control and for those who seek the presidency two years from now.