The Politics of Race are Shifting, and Politicians are Struggling to Keep PaceHistorians in the News
American politics has arrived at this moment of racial reckoning deeply polarized and with a party structure shaped profoundly by the politics of race. Ideology, religion and culture are a part of the polarization, but over the past half-century, race has been at the core of the sorting-out.
The story of how the Republican Party, once the party of Abraham Lincoln, became almost entirely dependent on white voters, and how the Democratic Party, once the party of Southern segregationists, became the political home to black Americans and other minorities has been years in the making.
Historian Jill Lepore has observed that at an earlier point in the country’s history, there were in essence three political parties — Republicans, Democrats and millions of black Americans denied the right to vote. Those who could vote began to move from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But even as the allegiance of some black voters was shifting, the two major parties were perceived more or less equally in their capacity to address issues of race, and many black voters continued to side with the Republicans. In his reelection campaign in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower received about 40 percent of the black vote.
In the spring of that year, two years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered an end to school desegregation, the Gallup Poll asked Americans which of the two major parties they saw as best able to handle the issue of segregation. Twenty-eight percent said the Republican Party, 26 percent said the Democratic Party, 22 percent said both parties and 24 percent had no opinion.
By the summer of 1964, a seismic shift in perceptions of the parties was underway. That was the summer when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Not long after, Gallup asked Americans which party would do the best job “of handling relations between the whites and the Negroes.” Rather than a near-even split, 50 percent said the Democrats while 18 percent said Republicans.
“It starts in 1932 but ends in 1964,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “That’s where the perceptual advantage becomes clear. It was [President] Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of civil rights [that] signaled that the Democratic Party was going to be more aggressive in pursuing issues of civil rights.”
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