By Hastings Wyman –
The front page, top-of-the-hour prominence of the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and subsequent protests – in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and now Chicago– have kept racial issues in the public eye for more than a year, and continue to do so. Nevertheless, despite different responses to these events by both races and both political parties, so far race has not supplanted the economy, or illegal immigration or Islamist terrorism at the top of voters’ concerns.
If race does become a pivotal issue in the 2016 campaign, both parties have much at stake. For Democrats, the problem is that on average 88% of African-Americans vote Democratic. If they are not enthusiastic about the Democratic nominee, they don’t vote Republican, but their turnout declines. In 2012, black turnout overall increased, but turnout among young blacks decreased by almost 7% over 2008.
Thus, all three of the Democratic presidential candidates have met with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and have in general showed support for the protests. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley took some heat from black activists for initially agreeing that “all lives matter,” but quickly apologized. And Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tweeted support for black students protesting at the University of Missouri.
But Democrats must not give the impression that they are kowtowing to black radicals, for fear of losing votes to white backlash. Thus, in 1992, Bill Clinton made a point of distancing himself from black activist/rapper Sistah Souljah, who appeared to advocate violence against whites.
The Republican dilemma is the opposite side of the coin. The GOP benefits from the support of white voters turned off by black protests, especially if the protests are accompanied by violence. This group undoubtedly includes some racially biased voters. But if the party appears to be encouraging bigotry, it loses the support of more moderate whites.
So far, Donald Trump is the Republican who has come closest to stirring the racial pot. He called O’Malley a “little, weak, pathetic baby” for his “all lives matter” apology. He took a similar line when University of Missouri officials resigned in the wake of recent black student demonstrations. He called the protesters “pathetic” and the officials who resigned “weak, ineffective people.” Later, in a Fox News interview, Trump said of the Missouri University protesters, “Their demands are, like, crazy.” The demands included a 10% quota for blacks on the faculty and establishing a mandatory “racial awareness and inclusion curriculum.” He also re-tweeted some statistics that overstated black crime.
Trump, however, makes harsh, politically incorrect comments about most things, and so far has not made the racial unrest the centerpiece of his campaign. Indeed, there has been some evidence that he would do better than the average Republican among African Americans. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Trump winning a greater share of the black vote than any of the 15 Republican candidates. And one recent SurveyUSA poll showed Trump getting 25% of the African-American vote against Hillary Clinton. However, other polls have shown Trump’s support among blacks ranging from 3% to 10%, about normal for a Republican.
Ben Carson has also weighed in, but in a more muted fashion, calling Missouri and Yale officials too tolerant of “infantile behavior.”
The problem facing both parties is that blacks and whites view current events in this country through different lenses. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, 83% of African Americans believe blacks and other minorities face discrimination, while 50% of whites believe the races get equal treatment.
Another survey, by PBS NewsHour and Marist College, found that only 21% of African Americans believe they have an equal chance of being hired for a job, while 52% of whites believe blacks have an equal chance.
And when asked whether whites and blacks have equal justice under the law, 50% of whites said yes, they did, while only 11% of blacks said yes.
So not surprisingly, there is a significant racial divergence in opinions about recent and current protest demonstration. The PBS/Marist survey found that 59% of whites, but only 26% of African Americans, thought the “black lives matter” movement distracted attention from racial discrimination issues.
Moreover, 41% of whites believe the movement advocates violence.
(Black voters are not of one mind about “black lives matter,” however. According to a Rasmussen Poll taken in August, only 31% of African Americans say “black lives matter” comes close to their own beliefs, while 64% chose “all lives matter.”)
There is one thing on which the two races agree: 67% of whites and 65% of blacks believe racial tensions have increased in the last ten years, reports a late November poll taken by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Whether racial tensions increase even more in the 2016 campaign remains to be seen. Stay tuned.