The New Denial: How much of partisan gridlock is driven by race?

Recently, historian Taylor Branch said, “Everybody says partisan gridlock is poisoning America, but nobody asks how much of it, underneath, is driven by race and racial resentment?” Speaking on CBS’ Face the Nation, Branch was joined by NAACP president Ben Jealous who said, “You know, when I was a journalist in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 90s, my old publisher used to say, ‘The only problem with the New South is that it continues to occupy the same space and time as the Old South.’”

People in the know are not convinced that racism is dead in America, nor that the gridlock that Republicans have created in Congress emanates from different degrees of racial preference, if not prejudice.

The general consensus at the time of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was that the United States has made significant advancement in race relations over the past half-century, but that much still remained to be done.

However, at least one poll reports that race relations are declining. The NBC-Wall Street Journal reports:

Only 52 percent of whites and 38 percent of blacks have a favorable opinion of race relations in the country, according to the poll, which has tracked race relations since 1994 and was conducted in mid-July by Hart Research Associations and Public Opinion Strategies.

That’s a sharp drop from the beginning of Obama’s first term, when 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks held a favorable view of American race relations.

President Obama weighed in on Branch’s assertion that partisan gridlock is driven in part by race and racial resentment. In an interview with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS’s NewsHour, the President said, “The gridlock is connected to longstanding political views that [the government] helping those Americans who lack opportunities is bad for the economy.” He added that he doesn’t take it personally.

“There’s a line that’s drawn between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. And you know, that, I think, has been fairly explicit in politics in this country for some time.”

The President’s answer is not surprising; it would be somewhat unseemly and certainly unproductive for the President to say that he agreed that our partisan gridlock is driven by race. We have at least advanced to a point where it is no longer an effective first strategy for African-Americans to describe themselves as a victims. The President was smart enough to not do that. But the reality remains that race is a big portion of the obstinance that Republicans have about giving due diligence to President Obama’s proposals.

racism-to-spot-aCertainly, for the past half-century, problems related to race have been accompanied with a great cultural divide that still exists in our country. The divide had a powerful fissure in the 1960s, when issues of race were intermingled with those of music, fashion, life-styles, and war. At the time, Republicans were generally called “conservative” because that was their view on most cultural, economic, and political issues. They did not like the change. The new voices of the counter-culture of the left became an irritant to them.

The current partisan gridlock driven by the Republicans is not exclusively due to their racial preferences. Rather, it is somewhat of a passive-aggressive response to a half century of the Left presenting a firmly rooted opposition to conservatism. Many Republicans feel distant from cultural changes in the country including “the new Hollywood,” new genres of music, racial harmony, gender equality, technology, modern science, and growing agnosticism and atheism. A somewhat threatening act in any of these areas can pose a threat to conservatives, one that they often generalize and hold against “those other people,” whom they may call hippies, non-believers, blacks, socialists or a host of other names.

The fact that our President is African-American is a threat to many conservatives, and they shut down in trying to cooperate with him. This has been the case even when he actually advocates a policy than originated with Republicans. There are also some Americans who felt good voting for Barack Obama, thinking that it would be good for the country to elect an African-American president. However, their goodwill may have lasted through the 2008 election, but not enough to support him while in office.

The cultural disparity between the two parties forms the basis of our gridlock. Taylor Branch and others are giving us a deeper view into the divide. A first step for all of us to take is to recognize the divide for what it is and acknowledge that race is a vital component of it. If we can move away from the “New Denial,” we will move further in advancing Dr. King’s dream.

[See companion article: Walking on the thin line of race.]