Politics Of Race Relations In The US Research Paper

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The problem of race has been very badly handled in political science. Except for Marxists who see racism and capitalism as intertwined, postmodern skeptics, and those like V. O. Key Jr., who studied the South, democratic theorists have not systematically addressed the racial factor in American politics (McClain and Garcia 1993, Dawson and Wilson 1991). Yet although the problems of racism, racial discrimination, and inequality have scarcely been resolved, many scholars of this current post-civil rights period have continued to ignore the profound and dynamic relationship between race and American politics. A large part of their failure to address the problem of race in America stems from the pervasiveness of a ‘gradualist’ liberal bias that views the race problem as ultimately resolving itself through integration and assimilation of racial minorities as well as through the disappearance of White racism. From Myrdal (1944) to Thernstrom and Thernstrom (1997), widely disseminated and important treatments of race relations in the USA remain rooted in this gradualist bias. Some scholars, however, recognize that race and ethnicity remain central features of a rational and modernizing society, and have begun to explore the political foundations of racial conflict and racism. The latest research is expanding the question of race to include a focus on groups other than the politics of American Blacks and Whites.

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1. Black Politics

The dominant theories put forth by leading American democratic theorists following World War II obviously excluded African-Americans in broadly characterizing the American political process as one at its core, where no one group is excluded and all, although hardly equals, can be heard. Even after such theories were later revised to portray the inclusion of Blacks as an inevitability, because as Robert Dahl explained, ‘democratic cultures have considerable capacity for correcting their own failures’ (1989, p. 180), what politics would look like after their inclusion was poorly foreshadowed and misunderstood by such scholars. Democratic theorists like Dahl (1961) and David Truman (1971) generally assumed that the political incorporation of Blacks would ‘normalize’ American politics, with all the various groups and subgroupings able to engage in pressure politics. Browning et al. (1984) in an important book, would argue that eventually minorities were integrated and empowered in the American pluralist system (Eisenger 1982, Sigelman and Welch 1982, Sonenshein 1993). These same authors and others, would later critically reevaluate their claim of ‘empowerment’ for American minorities (Hero 1992, Browning et al. 1991). But others scholars, including Adolph Reed Jr. (1988) would seriously question whether the pluralist model could ever be refashioned to fit American Blacks, since to do so would be to ignore the ‘racial element’ in American politics (see also Holden 1973, Jones 1972, McLemore 1972, Morris 1975, Pinderhughes 1987).

Given its exclusion in the discipline, research on the politics of Blacks would constitute a separate inquiry, apart from the mainstream (McClain and Garcia 1993). Research on Black politics would not only establish the continuing significance of race in American politics (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967, Jones 1972), but also the fact that politics as practiced, encompasses many more activities than recognized by mainstream scholars. Social movement scholars established how protest is not unlike electoral politics (McAdam 1982, Morris 1984) and the continuity between the two in the postcivil rights era (Holden 1973, Smith 1981, Tate 1993, Walton 1973). Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential bids clearly reflected the continuity (Marable 1985, 1990). Religion and social context, important to the emergence of the civil right movement, remain central to Black electoral politics (Cohen and Dawson 1993, Harris 1994). The racial identities of Blacks, a factor in the movement, continues to play a critical role in their political participation and attitudes today (Dawson 1994, Miller et al. 1981, Tate 1993, Shingles 1981, Verba and Nie 1972).

Nevertheless, William J. Wilson’s (1981) controversial thesis that race is receding in importance relative to class in the Black community, lay the seeds for a new controversy in Black politics over the degree to which race matters. Carol M. Swain’s (1993) award-winning book would question the relevance of race in the political representation of Blacks; others would contest it (Cannon 1999, Whitby 1997) or offer qualifications of it (Lublin 1996). While this debate continues, the study of the politics of Blacks which was generally the only way political scientists addressed the question of race has actually reshaped the contours and direction of mainstream work in political science. New attention is now paid to the nonelectoral antecedents of politics (e.g., Verba et al. 1995) and on the relationship between the institution and political behavior (e.g., Rosenstone and Hansen 1993) as others insisted was critical in the study of Black politics (e.g., Barker et al. 1998, Walton 1985).

2. The Debate Over Racial Prejudice

Although the bulk of political science has ignored race, there exists nevertheless a voluminous literature devoted to the empirical study of how racial attitudes influence the policy attitudes of Americans. Nearly all of this empirical work has focused on Whites, although some scholars have addressed the racial and policy attitudes of Blacks (Hochschild 1995, Sigelman and Welch 1991). Broadly, two lines of argument have emerged in the study of White racial attitudes. Those on one side of the debate argue that racial prejudice remains the fundamental factor behind Whites’ opposition to racial policies such as busing school children to achieve racially balanced public schools, and affirmative action. White racism has not disappeared, as Whites’ responses to the general principle of racial equality items imply. For some scholars, education has merely given more White Americans the ability to appear more racially tolerant than they really are (Jackman and Muha 1984). Rather, racial intolerance along with fundamental American values about the work ethic and individualism blended together, explains the negative attitudes that Whites have toward government efforts to eradicate racial inequality (Kinder 1986, Kinder and Sanders 1996, Kinder and Sears 1981, McConahay 1986, McConahay and Hough 1976, Sears 1988, Sears et al. 2000). Using their defense of traditional values as a cover for their resentment and fears of Blacks, Whites strongly object to policies that would change the racial status quo.

Those on the other side of the debate have sought to account for White opposition to racial policies differently, choosing to focus on factors other than racial prejudice, and not only because they provide a more flattering portrayal of White Americans. For those seeking alternative explanations, ideology and moralistic values and beliefs are posited to be the major reasons underlying White opposition to racial implementation policies. Politically conservative Whites object to such policies because of their dislike of ‘big government.’ Kuklinski and Parent 1981, Margolis and Hague 1981, Sniderman et al. 1984, 1991). In addition, these scholars point to the ‘natural contradiction’ between the White majority’s commitment to individual rights and freedoms, its preference for a limited government, and support for new government programs that would favor Blacks (Carmines and Merriman 1993, Sniderman and Hagen 1985). Programs that are designed to promote racially equal results at once contradict the very values, including color-blindness, that most Whites now espouse (Sniderman and Piazza 1993).

Along these lines, other scholars have sought to link White racial attitudes to their beliefs about the causes of racial inequality and racial stratification. Several scholars have shown that Whites will not support programs that assist Blacks if they believe the system to be fair and that Blacks themselves are not working hard enough to get ahead (Kluegel and Smith 1986, 1986, Sniderman and Hagen 1985). While civil rights organizations have asserted that Blacks are denied equal opportunities to Whites to get ahead, most White Americans express full faith in the abundance of opportunity in American society. Their faith contrasts greatly with that of Blacks (Kluegel and Bobo 1993, Kluegel and Smith 1986, pp. 67–68, Sigelman and Welch 1991). In the 1990 General Social Survey, 72 percent of Blacks, but only 37 percent of Whites, thought that racial discrimination was a main factor in the unequal outcomes for Blacks in jobs, income, and housing. Given that most Whites believe that Blacks currently have equal opportunities to Whites and that the economic system works well, most oppose programs that demand equality of outcomes.

As one of the more radical theoretical shifts, the meaning of racial prejudice has changed (see Sniderman et al. 1993, for a similar discussion). Once considered to be an archaic, irrational need located deep in a person’s heart to scapegoat others, research has consistently favored another view, that racial bias is ubiquitous, forming naturally in a person’s mind through social group interactions (Nisbett and Ross 1980). The new definition of prejudice as an instinctive and widespread phenomenon can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, the very ubiquitousness of racial stereotypes undermines their relevance in the study of White racial attitudes. Because stereotypes are so widespread, Whites’ opposition to racial policies must more critically depend on other factors, such as politics, ideologies, and the framing of the issue. On the other hand, the ubiquitous nature of racial stereotypes exposes its foundation in the social stratification system or a racial hierarchy and in history. Scholars working in sociology and social psychology argue that racism, new or old, persists because it justifies and extends one group’s domination over another (Sidanious and Pratto 1993, Sidanius et al. 1996).

3. The New Institutionalism In Racial Politics

There is a new and different approach to the study of race and politics that I classify under the heading of the ‘new institutionalism in racial politics.’ The core thesis is that politics is as much an underlying cause of America’s racial cleavages as it gives expression to such cleavages. Although consistent with a growing branch of political science that argues that institutions structure political behavior, not only political outcomes (March and Olsen 1984), to argue that politics is structurally implicated in America’s racial divisions still represents an important break from the intellectual tradition in political science.

American federalism was a pragmatic response to the contentious issue of slavery, but greatly prolonged the institution of slavery and the subjugation of American Blacks. States would use their constitutional powers to deny citizenship to Mexicans and Asian immigrants, as well as deny Blacks their new right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment. An entire subfield exists that examines the ways that electoral arrangements and practices negate the Black vote (e.g., Davidson and Grofman 1994, Grofman et al., 1992, Kousser, 1999).

New research on racial politics and voting has continued to identify factors other than the racial attitudes of Whites in their rejection of Black candidates and their defection from the Democratic party (see Giles and Buckner 1993, Giles and Evans 1986, Giles and Hertz 1994, Glaser 1994, Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989, Reeves 1997) Racial prejudice is not deemed unimportant or irrelevant in these new studies, but the racial behavior of Whites is conceptualized as more situational-based than attitudinally-based. Candidates, political parties, and the media can make race the focal point of the election generally, but not always, to the detriment of the Black candidate (Lublin and Tate 1995, Metz and Tate 1995, Reeves 1997).

Finally, while sociologists and social psychologists contend that racial categories are socially constructed, some political scientists (Smith 1997) have begun to show how in the USA racial identities have been politically constructed through US laws covering immigration, state laws that defined race, the US census, and affirmative action guidelines along with legal and political discourse. Comparative race studies have emerged, underscoring the role that state policies play in defining race (Gilroy 1991, Marx 1998).

4. Beyond Black And White

Finally, most of the research on racial prejudice and racial politics has been conceptualized and tested on Whites and Blacks. Researchers have begun to recognize that even race relations defined as narrowly as Black–White relations is critically related to status and politics of other American minorities as well, notably America’s fastest-growing groups, Asian-Americans and Latinos (Bedolla 2000, Cain et al. 1991, De la Garza et al. 1992, DeSipio 1996, Espiritu 1992, Garcia 1997, Hardy-Fanta 1993, Hero 1992, Jennings 1994, Jennings and Rivera 1984, Saito 1998, Uhlaner et al. 1989, Wrinkle et al. 1996). Whether these groups suffer discrimination on the basis of their nationality, and the degree to which national origin affects their politics is often the unstated subtext of in these body in work (but see Kim, 2000). In response to recent highly publicized conflicts between Blacks, Latinos, and Koreans in cities such as Los Angeles and New York, much of this work addresses interminority conflict (Abelmann and Lie 1995, Kim, in press, McClain 1993, McClain and Karnig 1990) Finally, new work has explored not just interracial or interethnic politics, but intraminority group politics. The limits of treating African American and Latino politics in ‘gender-and sex neutral’ terms, for example, have been exposed in Cathy Cohen’s (1999) study of politics of AIDS in the Black community and Carol Hardy-Fanta’s (1993) work on community organizing among Latinos. Moving beyond the Black–White dichotomy is critical for reaching a better understanding of not only the politics of the neglected ‘other’ minorities, but for Black politics and US politics more broadly.

While research on race exists and grows, it still remains a neglected focus in political science. The 1990s scholarship I have presented clearly establishes that race does not lie on a progressive-regressive continuum as the gradualist assumption posits. This idea that we are headed in the direction of a colorblind society remains extremely popular to scientists and nonscientists alike. Nevertheless, ample social science research in social and cognitive psychology shows that people routinely discriminate, that racial stereotypes persist (Nisbett and Ross 1980). Race therefore remains a dynamic feature of American politics, whose complexities we have only just begun to understood and appreciate. At best, one can talk about minimizing its significance. It is vital that we understand how politics is implicated in the persistence of racial divisions if we are to have a true democracy organized in a way that is truly inclusive, working for the common good of us all, not just for those at the top of the racial order. To do this, political scientists must pay greater and careful attention to the problem of race than they have in the past.


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