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The Democratic Party Isn’t as Racist as the GOP. That’s Not Saying Much.

Scott Olson/Getty

There never seems to be a shortage of new evidence at hand that the Republican Party is willing to either tolerate or actively promote racism. (Or, if you’re feeling particularly generous: “racially coded language.”) Whether it’s in a cynical attempt to fire up a shrinking white base or antagonism that has tagged along since the Civil Rights era, time and again we see a dazzling display of racial animus ranging from simple ignorance to outright hate. A sampling from the frontrunners for the 2016 presidential election: There’s the GOP’s widespread Islamophobia, cemented by Ben Carson’s wish to exclude Muslims outright from the body politic; the stewing anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic language served up by Donald Trump, who’s currently polling the highest in the field; and the anachronistic assault on black voters coupled with a disbelief in the reality of black lives might be something they all agree on. Many commentators have construed Republican’s race problems as a crucial part of the party’s new identity. They’re right.

A more difficult question to answer, and to ask, however, is whether Democrats are doing enough in return to be a voice of anti-racism. Evidence from Thomas Edsall’s recent New York Times op-ed on the racial under-and-overtones of the Republican Party shakes some closely held Democratic convictions on race. Edsall cites a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute on whether white respondents in 2014 agreed or disagreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” He intends to isolate the delusions of the right. That’s not hard, where 76 percent of Tea Partiers and 61 percent of Republicans self-identify as deluded—which is to say, they agreed. And yet: a full 37 percent of white Democrats think that white people face the same discrimination as the populations that are disproportionately arrested, sentenced, in poverty, unemployed, and killed.

It’s not just white Democrats, though. On a number of racial issues, more than one third of all Democrats appear to hold beliefs that better fit the old southern Democrats than the supposedly modern progressives smug at the Republican Party’s descent into racial dog-whistling. A sampling of these views: bias against Islam, where 67 percent of Republicans say that Islam is “more likely to encourage violence among its believers; 42 percent of Democrats agree. On immigrants: Where about two thirds of Republicans say that immigrants “burden” rather than “strengthen” the country, a full third of Democrats feel the same way.

Granted, that more than a third of Democrats concur with Republicans on a number of racist, xenophobic, or nativist poll questions is not quite equivalent to the bile spewing from the other side of the aisle. That type of bile makes a physical wall seem like an appropriate response to human aspiration and suffering and survival; it says time is well spent protecting Americans from “Sharia law.” 

That said: This kind of widespread delusion should be extremely troubling for a party that positions itself as the progressive one. Even if it isn’t strictly pulling the country backwards, 37 percent is an awfully big weight to pull forward—a third of the party doesn’t see a need for change where there clearly is one. It’s a third that, when combined with the dominant conservative narrative, leads to the national discrepancies on the state of race in America so well illustrated by a Gallup poll from June: On a scale from very satisfied to very dissatisfied, 45 percent of black respondents said they were “very dissatisfied” by the way Blacks are treated in this country; just 18 percent of whites polled agreed with that assessment. This makes sense if you, like 72 percent of whites, also believe that blacks have the same chance as whites of getting a job they qualify for. It should come as no surprise that only 36 percent of black respondents concurred. 

Though Democratic complicity in white naiveté will certainly shock many in blue (as it does me), it shouldn’t surprise Democratic leaders. Obama has been hounded since his first day in office for not talking strongly enough about race, but it’s hard to condemn him based on his party’s reluctance to take any leadership on the issue. Here’s a simple test: Compare how many Democrats have been renowned for racial progressiveness to the number of Republicans who are infamous (and, within the party, famous) for their outspoken views on race? It’s a helpful illustration of who’s been willing to score points on the topic, and who, for whatever reason, has found it “too controversial” to meaningfully address. 

Granted, it is hard to talk about race. But Democratic politicians have been using the difficulty of the proposition—read: the fear of dropping votes—to hide from that responsibility at every turn. It doesn’t seem to be too hard for the conservative pundits and politicians—currently typified by Trump and Carson’s recent execrable remarks—that do so all the time. You don’t get a New Yorker profile about your white supremacist fan base by sitting on the sidelines.

When Democrats do pipe up, this time around thanks to Black Lives Matters activists pushing the issue, it is responsive: Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have published new racial justice agendas or comments only after uncomfortable engagements with protestors. (Protestors who themselves are a response to systems of racial domination Democrats had plenty of part in forming.) When racially grounded legislation, from voting restrictions to criminal justice measures, slipped by without sufficient confrontation, it passed as much because of GOP insistence as liberal meekness. The point, though, is neither academic nor historical: Realistic approaches to understanding and addressing race in 2015 will in turn dictate how the Democratic Party approaches crucial issues—from poverty to policing—as it makes commitments in 2016 and beyond.

Meeting Republican belligerence with condemnation, the bare minimum we should expect, is fine, but it is hardly inspiring or productive. Without a truly progressive message on race—on what’s wrong and what concrete things can be done—it makes sense that the Democratic Party still retains a significant contingent swayed by vitriol and misinformation (or plain ignorance). Let the GOP be the big tent for racial animus, the party to equivocate over whether “black lives matter”: There’s no reason to find bipartisanship now, not if you truly believe in equality.