We did cover Martin Luther King Jr., of course, generally through the lens of the January holiday in his honor. One might be forgiven, then, for thinking that America’s racial tensions were fleeting and resolved, that the last battle against racism in the United States had been won by the good guys in 1968 or so.
There are lots of debates to be had over how America’s history on race should be taught in schools — or even the extent to which it should. We are in the midst of such a debate, of course, one that’s often informed by shorthands and summaries that miss complexities. The construction I offered in the previous paragraph is a similarly non-complex assessment of America’s understanding of race, a straw man of someone for whom race is generally an afterthought. In other words, of a White person. As Robert W. Terry wrote in 1981: “To be white in America is to not have to think about it.”
Over the past few years, Americans have had to think about race more than they might have wanted. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 spurred new focus on ways in which racism can be present but not obvious, manifesting not as “colored only” signs but as decades-old patterns that disadvantage non-White Americans.
If you were a White American whose understanding of race in this country was that the battle over racism had been won, this would be jarring. It implies not only that racism is more complicated than Klan rallies but that there may be broader culpability than simply Klan members. By extension, then, the implication is that maybe even you have been party to racism.
This doesn’t necessarily follow, of course. But this idea does help explain the emergence of defensive assessments of race among White Americans and, particularly, among Republicans. One of the common traits of supporters of Donald Trump in 2016 was a sense that Whites faced unusual amounts of discrimination; Republicans (who are overwhelmingly White) have consistently indicated that they feel Whites face as much discrimination as other racial or religious groups. It’s easy to see how this could manifest as blowback against expanding discussions of race in schools or as insistences on the greatness of America as it is.
New polling from PRRI shows how that sentiment manifests and overlaps with partisanship. Three-quarters of Americans, for example, say that the United States has always been a force for good in the world — but Republicans are 25 points more likely to hold that view than Democrats. Republicans are more than 30 points more likely to say that they have always been proud to be American.
More to the point, most Republicans say that the United States has made great progress in achieving “true racial equality,” a view that only about a quarter of Democrats hold. It’s probably useful to understand this question as something of a proxy for the issue raised above; obviously the United States has made great progress toward true racial equality since 1790, when Black people were enslaved and held literally no political power. Also to the point: Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the teaching of American history should include both highs and lows.
But then we get to another battery of questions that reveals some of the insecurity Republicans feel about the country in the moment. Most Republicans think that “America is in danger of losing its culture and identity” and that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country” — obviously a strong assertion. PRRI asked respondents what traits were important for someone to be truly American, and here we get hints about that concern.
Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that “accepting people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds” was important to be truly American, but that’s different than saying that diversity of race and religion are important to the country. It can be read both proactively and defensively; if you’re someone who feels as though your Christian faith is under attack (as many conservative Republicans do), you would probably agree that it was important not to disrespect people based on race and religion.
After all, most Republicans also think that being “truly American” means speaking English, being born in the United States and believing in God. Rejecting the idea that an immigrant or a non-Christian can be “truly American” does not sit comfortably with overwhelming support for acceptance of diversity. The poll has other indications of similar reservations. Over the past decade, the number of Republicans who say that newcomers to the United States strengthen the country has dropped from 39 percent to 28 percent in PRRI’s polling. In its October survey, less than a quarter of Republicans said they preferred that the country be made up of a wide range of religious views.
The “change” being measured, then, clearly overlaps with race and immigration (which, of course, itself overlaps with race, given that most immigrants are Hispanic or Asian). Not only is any idea that America’s racial problems are mostly resolved being challenged, so (some believe) is the primacy of White Christians.
This can be useful. Both Trump and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, for example, give every indication of believing that the power of White Christians is being diminished in the United States and each has tried to leverage that concern to build an audience. Trump’s efforts have been well-documented. Carlson’s response to the Biden administration has been to suggest (self-servingly) that President Biden is targeting the right broadly as white nationalists. As the Virginia gubernatorial vote has neared, Carlson’s employer, Fox News, has elevated discussion of race and education in the state.
In fact, America does not look the way it used to and, in fact, America’s discussion of its past has often been willfully or inadvertently incomplete. As we collectively assess both of those issues, though, it’s useful to recognize that some of the reaction to them is rooted in insecurity about what each means and in the fact that each can be seen as threatening or discomforting. Perhaps more importantly over the short term, we should also recognize that the discomfort provides an opportunity for exploitation.