A week ago, the Washington Post reported that the word “Niggerhead” had appeared for many years on a rock at a hunting camp leased by Rick Perry’s family. Herman Cain promptly went on two Sunday shows and called Perry “insensitive” for taking too long to paint over the rock. Perry responded with a quick statement agreeing that “the word written by others long ago is insensitive and offensive. That is why the Perrys took quick action to cover and obscure it.”
Cain and Perry showed no such clarity a week later, when Robert Jeffress, a prominent Baptist pastor speaking at a national family-values conference, called Mormonism a non-Christian cult and urged voters to support Perry over Romney because Perry was a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” Cain, again appearing on two Sunday shows, refused to say whether Mormons were Christians. “I’m not getting into that controversy,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley before implicitly affirming the distinction: “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity.” When CNN asked the Perry campaign whether Perry would repudiate Jeffress’ statements, the campaign said Perry “does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” but it ignored the pastor’s other allegations.
The gap between these two episodes—clear condemnations of racism, but silence and ambiguity about anti-Mormonism—illustrates a fundamental weakness in our understanding of bigotry. We’re always fighting the last war. We hammer a politician’s connection to prejudice against blacks, no matter how symbolic the prejudice or how old, distant, and tenuous the connection, because nearly everyone recognizes this bigotry as bigotry. Denouncing it is easy. What’s hard is speaking out against a bias that isn’t so widely recognized. It’s politically difficult because challenging a common prejudice could cost you votes. And it’s morally difficult because the biases of your era are hard to see.
National polls taken in recent months show how far anti-black prejudice has subsided compared to anti-Mormon prejudice. In a Gallup survey, 5 percent of adults said they wouldn’t vote for their party’s presidential nominee if he were black. Six percent said they wouldn’t vote for a woman, 7 percent said they wouldn’t vote for a Catholic, 9 percent said they wouldn’t vote for a Jew, and 10 percent said they wouldn’t vote for a Hispanic. But 22 percent said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. Gallup reported:
The stability in U.S. bias against voting for a Mormon presidential candidate contrasts markedly with steep declines in similar views toward several other groups over the past half-century, including blacks, women, Catholics, and Jews. The last time as many as 22% of Americans said they would not vote for any of these groups (the same level opposed to voting for a Mormon today) was 1959 for Catholics, 1961 for Jews, 1971 for blacks, and 1975 for women. As noted, opposition to voting for each of these has since tapered off to single digits.
In a Pew survey, 7 percent of adults said they’d be more likely to support a presidential candidate if he were black. Only 3 percent said they’d be less likely. (Among whites, 3 percent said more likely; 4 percent said less likely.) But while 5 percent said they’d be more likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Mormon, 25 percent said they’d be less likely. In the four years since Pew’s last survey on this topic, taken in August 2007, the percentage of respondents who said they’d be less likely to support a black, Hispanic, or female candidate shrank. But the percentage who said they’d be less likely to support a Mormon didn’t change.
In a Quinnipiac survey, 13 percent of voters said they’d be uncomfortable with a Catholic president, and 15 percent said they’d be uncomfortable with a Jewish president, but 36 percent said they’d be uncomfortable with a Mormon president. In a Lawrence Research survey, 4 percent of voters said they’d never consider voting for a Catholic presidential candidate, and the same number said they’d never consider voting for a Baptist, but 20 percent said they’d never consider voting for a Mormon. In a Poll Position survey, 32 percent of adults said they’d never support a Mormon for president.
Remarkably, after centuries of horrific racial persecution, bigotry against black candidates is dissolving. In 40 years, we’ve progressed from Shirley Chisholm’s novelty to Jesse Jackson’s delegate count to Barack Obama’s presidency. Cain has surged to the top of Republican primary polls. The loudest, longest applause in any Republican presidential debate this year was for Cain’s recovery from cancer. The collapse of stated prejudice against black candidates in polls doesn’t mean racism is gone. But it does mean that nearly everyone now recognizes anti-black prejudice as socially unacceptable. That isn’t true of anti-Mormon sentiment: 22 to 35 percent of respondents are willing to declare their anti-Mormon views.
Perry’s appointments, positions, and statements discredit any notion that he’s a racist. It’s ludicrous to obsess over how many years ago his family adequately painted over somebody else’s racial epithet—the tombstone of a dead era—while ignoring Perry’s silence about a thriving prejudice. And Mormons aren’t the only enduring targets. Polls show Americans are even less willing to vote for a gay or Muslim candidate. These are the prejudices of 2011, fed and defended by men like Cain and Rick Santorum.
If you think liberals are immune to such bias, think again. In the Pew poll, 31 percent of Democrats, compared to 23 percent of Republicans, said they’d be less likely to support a candidate if he were Mormon. In the Quinnipiac poll, 46 percent of Democrats, compared to 29 percent of Republicans, said they’d be uncomfortable with a Mormon president. In the Gallup poll, 27 percent of Democrats, compared to 18 percent of Republicans, said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon for president. In the Poll Position survey, 37 percent of Democrats said they’d never vote for a Mormon, compared to 26 percent of Republicans.
The lesson in these numbers is that we should focus our scrutiny not where we all agree, but where we don’t. What happened to that rock at Perry’s hunting camp—once proudly displayed, then painted over, and now universally condemned—tells a timeless story about bigotry: You’ll know it when you see it, but you won’t see it till you know that’s what it is. The prejudices you need to work on aren’t the ones you recognize in your grandparents’ generation. They’re the ones you don’t recognize in your own generation, and in yourself.