American politics in the 20th century were dominated by two different consensus positions on race and racism. For the first half of the century, the two parties tabled civil rights as an issue.
White supremacy, whether Jim Crow in the South or ghettoization in the North, was left undisturbed. In the middle of the century, a combination of economic disadvantage, war, migration, and sustained destabilization toppled that agreement, leading to a liberal consensus on race and racism.
That consensus is now crumbling. Donald Trump has returned explicit racism to political life, and his success has energized a new generation of activists and organizations committed to the expansion of white supremacy, by violence if necessary. Less obvious, but just as critical, is a backlash and growing racial awareness among the youngest Americans.
As much a function of racial diversity among young people as it is partisanship and ideology, this shift toward racial egalitarianism is the counterweight to a rising wave of ethno-nationalism in American life. Race and racism have always defined our politics, but the future promises a stark divide of a kind we haven’t seen since the 19th century.
For writer Nils Gilman, the post-1970s racial consensus, which he calls “racial liberalism,” was straightforward. “First, bigotry of any overt sort would not be tolerated, but second, that what was intolerable was only overt bigotry,” writes Gilman. “Institutional or ‘structural’ racism … were not to be addressed. The core ethic of the racial liberal consensus was colorblind individualism.” Barack Obama, a black man of biracial descent raised in cosmopolitan Hawaii and educated in a progression of elite institutions, stood as the embodiment and apotheosis of racial liberalism, promising racial transcendence and an end to the tribal conflicts of the past.
This promise, Gilman notes, withered in the face of both backlash—fueled by partisan anger and racial resentment—and its own inadequacy, as Obama struggled to address explosive protests against police violence and as his administration failed to arrest rising racial inequality. By the end of his eight years in office, Obama had demonstrated the clear limits of the liberal racial consensus.
Politically, the new equilibrium of American racial politics is still taking shape. Yes, Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office, and Democratic politicians are increasingly willing to condemn “institutional racism” and call for the removal of civic symbols tied to white supremacy. But the institutional Republican Party has still not fully embraced the president’s demagoguery (even as it remains complicit in giving it a platform), while the Democratic Party has only taken small steps toward a message and platform of racial egalitarianism. Here, the parties are lagging somewhat behind the public.
Millennials, now the most diverse generation of adults in American history, are at the vanguard of a shift toward greater color-consciousness in American politics. Fifty-two percent point to discrimination as the main barrier to black progress, a 14-point jump from 2016, when just 38 percent agreed with the statement, according to the Pew Research Center. Similarly, 68 percent of millennials (and 62 percent of Gen Xers) say that the country needs to “continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.” Millennials show the highest support for immigrants and immigration, and are most likely to oppose a border wall with Mexico. In a separate Pew poll, 60 percent of white millennials said they supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
Conducted in 2017, the GenForward survey on millennials and race found similar attitudes, with strong awareness of racial discrimination and inequality among the large majority of black, Hispanic, and Asian American millennials, and a substantial minority of white millennials. All millennial groups list racism as one of the most important problems in America, all believe black Americans experience the most racial discrimination in American society, and a majority believe that growing diversity will strengthen the United States.
White millennials are more likely to hold conservative views on race—59 percent believe blacks should overcome prejudice and “work their way up” without any “special favors,” and 48 percent believe discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as that against nonwhites—but they are still more egalitarian than their parents and grandparents. One striking result from the survey is that overwhelming majorities of young blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans believe those groups can work together to achieve change, while less than half believe they can achieve progress working with white Americans.
The move toward racial egalitarianism among young Americans is mirrored in a move toward racial resentment and chauvinism among many white Americans, and conservatives in particular. In the wake of Obama’s election, these voters became more likely to express anti-black attitudes and disapprove of interracial dating. In A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial-Aversion Crisis, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher uses a measure called “racial aversion” to show changes in anti-black attitudes. Over the course of Obama’s presidency, Republican voters moved toward greater racial aversion—meaning anti-black antagonism—while Democrats moved in the opposite direction. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump both capitalized on this change and stoked it, using explicit rhetoric to activate latent prejudices.
Race and racism are explicitly at the forefront of our politics now, which isn’t a new frontier as much as it’s a return to an older age. Americans of the late 19th century—during the interregnum between Reconstruction and Jim Crow—fought openly and often violently about the status of blacks and other nonwhites in national life. Would they be full and equal citizens or an untouchable caste? Granted inclusion or segregated from commerce and politics? Was America an open society, or was it a white man’s country with a white man’s government?
Today’s fights echo those of the past. But they aren’t the same. Then, racial equality was an idea on the margins of society. Now, it’s backed—in substantive form—by America’s rising cohort of voters. At this particular moment, ethno-nationalism is politically ascendant. But it’s not unchallenged, and its opponents are beginning to take the field.