The temptation to play the race card is one that President Obama and his surrogates have too often found irresistible. Think of Attorney General Eric Holder's claim last summer that criticism of the Obama administration is fueled by "racial animus," or Vice President Joe Biden's warning to a largely nonwhite audience in 2012 that Mitt Romney was "going to put y'all back in chains" if he won the White House. RecallObama himself, predicting that Republicans would demonize him because "he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
Yet there are also times when the president heeds the better angels of his nature, and declines to stoke racial resentments.
One such moment came during an interview last week, when NPR's Steve Inskeep asked Obama if the country is "more racially divided than it was when you took office six years ago." Without hesitating, the president answered candidly: "No, I actually think that it's probably in its day-to-day interactions less racially divided." There may be a perception to the contrary, he acknowledged, but that has more to do with the media-driven focus on particular events, "like Ferguson or the Garner case in New York."
Nor did he take the bait when Inskeep, raising "a couple of data points" that "suggest a broad gulf" between the races, contrasted Obama's overwhelming share of the black vote in his two presidential campaigns with the "rather dramatic" drop in the white Democratic vote. Instead of endorsing Inskeep's inference that "political division between [the] races" is widening, Obama responded mildly that data can be spun to suggest anything. In reality, he noted, "when I was elected in '08, I actually did better among white voters … than John Kerry did."
In fact, Obama's share of the white electorate in 2008 not only surpassed Kerry's four years earlier, but Al Gore's in 2000, Bill Clinton's in 1992, Michael Dukakis's in 1988, Walter Mondale's in 1984, and Jimmy Carter's in 1980. The nomination of a black presidential candidate didn't send white voters fleeing from the Democratic Party — quite the contrary. White racism, once such a powerful force in US politics, is now almost undetectable when Americans go to the polls. Good for the president, at least on this occasion, for not encouraging the myth that blacks don't get a fair shake on Election Day.
Indeed, for all the controversy over voter-ID requirements and other election-law reforms, black participation in the electoral process is more robust than ever. Accusations that such laws are motivated by a desire to suppress minority voting may be cynical or sincere, but if the proof of the pudding is in the turnout, the black franchise is perfectly sound.
"Voting rates for blacks were higher in 2012 than in any recent presidential election, the result of a steady increase in black voting rates since 1996,"
Black turnout has been rising everywhere, even in states dominated by Republicans. Jason Riley, author of the new book Please Stop Helping Us, observes that the trend "was most pronounced in red states like Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi," and that black voter turnout in 2012 surpassed white turnout by statistically significant margins … [even] in states with the strictest voter-ID laws." When skeptical researchers at PolitiFact dug into Riley's claim, they rated it True.
There wasn't much joy for Obama or his party in last November's midterm elections, but the evidence of democratic engagement among African Americans showed no signs of letup. Overall, black turnout accounted for a higher share of the vote in 2014 than it had in 2010. Once again, it was hard to find significant evidence that voter-ID laws stifled voting, even in GOP strongholds. Looking at seven states below the Mason-Dixon Line, Bloomberg writer Francis Barry found that "the states with a voter-ID requirement, including Louisiana and Florida, had the highest turnout rates; the two states where no ID is required — Maryland and North Carolina — had the lowest."
Racial tensions obviously haven't vanished entirely from American life, but for all intents and purposes, racism as a political factor has. As the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act approaches, Jim Crow is dead in its grave, while black electoral vitality in America is alive and well.