Race: The Beating Heart of U.S. Democracy


Ronald Reagan (Image taken from Google)


When my parents arrived in New York City from India, all they knew were the basics: the President at the time (Ronald Reagan), what year the country was founded, and that the U.S. was a land of opportunity (based on what they heard from friends). They first lived in an apartment in Brooklyn, along with family. It was cramped but felt normal to them, since back home, people usually stayed with relatives and large non-nuclear units. My dad’s plan was to study for his PhD at Columbia, but once I was born (in the U.S.) he left the program to start a business instead, so he could better provide for my mom and me. The business, which was focused on making copies and faxes for customers, eventually failed, and my dad had to start over. Fortunately, my grandfather was able to help, and my dad managed to become an engineer. Everyone stuck together and saved and saved, until able to afford our own home in Queens. My parents took the next logical step when I was old enough to go to school, and became citizens. Rudy Giuliani was mayor of the city, and neither of my parents were fans. In fact, once gaining their citizenship, my parents always voted Democrat. It was only recently that I finally asked them how they chose which political party to support.

My mom’s answer was as follows: “Democrats are smart. They’re also nice. They’re kind and respectful to people like us.”

My dad’s response was also fascinating:

“When I first came here, I didn’t know much about the political system. I would read the newspapers and watch TV to learn. And I realized that in the Republican Party, it was all white. The Democrats had black people. So, I decided to become a Democrat.”

I’m aware that this is just the perspective and experiences of my parents. I understand that obviously not every person of color (certainly not every immigrant) would arrive at that same conclusion as did my mom and dad. Still, I began with this anecdote because A) jumping into the swamp of facts and data can be numbing and B) political science is about people most of all, especially when dealing with issues around voting and political participation. Finally, this mini-story/anecdote provides me with an ideal way to state my main theory, which is: Race is at the heart of how Americans decide who to vote for and why, and which political party they should fall in line with. Political psychology must do more to research and investigate the relationship between a person’s race/ethnicity and their political views and level of participation in order to provide an accurate perspective as to how our nation functions as a developing democracy.


            The United States was a country built on caste, and racial hierarchy. When the U.S. was officially founded, most black men and women toiled as slaves, and indigenous lives were constantly devalued, as white European settlers moved further and further inland, removing them from their ancestral homes. The U.S., at its best, can be described as an oddity, and at its worst, a slavocracy. It is true that many white Europeans enjoyed expanded freedoms and liberties after immigrating to the U.S. Yet, it is also apparent that if you were black, brown, or had a dark complexion, you were automatically condemned as not deserving of the American Dream.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a name synonymous with the study of early American democracy, witnessed the U.S. forming its multi-tiered system of rights and privileges. White workers themselves, who would’ve benefited from uniting with the black and brown masses, refused to do so, and in fact, took joy in their relative superiority. During his journeys through the southern states, Tocqueville was astounded at how the white workers adopted the set of beliefs and behaviors of the elite whites (the planter class) had toward the black slaves, willingly accepting man-made divisions and believing that even though they were also poor and without much power, that they were somehow special because of the color of their skin.[1]


Ku Klux Klan (Image taken from Google)

“Tocqueville’s ‘Three Races’ chapter clearly illustrates that he was aware of the role that property rights in whiteness and white privilege played in American political development,” Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. writes in his study of Tocqueville’s observations on race. “In other words, he saw both the state and the federal governments as fundamentally committed to passing laws that created and sustained both property rights in whiteness and generalized white privilege in the Jacksonian republic.”[2]

Not surprisingly, this privilege allowed white men, and eventually, women, the right to buy homes wherever they wanted, to work better jobs, and to participate in their government. Their voices could be heard just by going to a town hall, or stopping by their local mayor’s office. There was no palpable fear of being humiliated and treated less than a human being. This is not to say that all white Americans were treated absolutely fairly, especially in the political world. Many European immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century suffered abuse and prejudice from those who had already been in the U.S. for decades. None of us should be shocked by the old pictures of signs that read “No Irish Apply” for jobs in local stores, or reading about the manner in which the KKK would also focus their terrorism on Italians and those they considered loyal to the Papist regime (a.k.a. the Catholic Church). Bigotry is American as apple pie. Yet, for those white Europeans, who decided to take that chance and begin a new life, they were allowed to change their names, to learn the language, to pass on their earned whiteness to their children. Whiteness, for Europeans, could be achieved, and unlocked, so long as they understood that people of color, especially black Americans, were not to be treated fairly or accepted as equals.[3]

Slavery ended through a bloody and necessary civil war. Reconstruction offered hope, as black representatives were finally elected into office, and black citizens in general, felt more enthused about belonging in the country they built.[4] However, white privilege reared its head, and soon, Union troops were removed from the south, leaving its minority black population defenseless against attacks by the state and its terrorist arm, the KKK. Before the civil rights struggle won landmark legislation for black Americans, black Americans spent decades placed in disadvantaged positions as compared to their white counterparts. Black Americans were never encouraged by the white establishment to read or write. Knowledge was literal power, and so, black Americans were always degraded as being unfit for intellectual passions, and therefore, their schools were underfunded, and for those who could even make it through, elite universities refused admissions.

Since the Civil War and during apartheid, the Democratic Party was seen as representing white privilege. But once Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, he and everyone around him knew that the white votes their party relied on were up for grabs. Candidates such as Barry Goldwater sensed this as well, and pandered to the disaffected white voter in the South, by stating his opposition to the civil rights bills that were passed, and expressing his support for “state’s rights.” Such statements are better known as “dog-whistle politics.”[5] As the country’s political mainstream no longer tolerated the usage of derogatory epithets against black people (i.e. the N-word), its white politicians, mostly on the right-wing, found new ways to connect to their base of supporters, by cueing certain imagery through less overt forms of language. Dog-whistle politics was effective in getting out the message that civil rights for black people was horrible for the country, and that the white population was losing their privileges and rights. As explained best in Ian Haney Lopez’s recent work about this strain of political messaging, “‘States’ rights’ was a paper-thin abstraction from the days before the Civil War when it had meant the right of Southern states to continue slavery. Then, as a rejoinder to the demand for integration, it meant the right of Southern states to continue laws mandating racial segregation—a system of debasement so thorough that it ‘extended to churches and schools, to housing and jobs, to eating and drinking . . . to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.’ That’s what ‘states rights’ defended, though in the language of state-federal relations rather than white supremacy. Yet this was enough of a fig leaf to allow persons queasy about black equality to oppose integration without having to admit, to others and perhaps even to themselves, their racial attitudes.”[6]

Anti-busing protestors in Boston
Anti-busing protests (Image taken from Google)

Prior to the enfranchisement of black Americans, the South was dominated by the Democratic Party, which claimed 77% of southern voters in 1952. However, once the Democrats tried to make amends for their racial past, Republicans gained ground. By 1984, only 37% of southern voters were Democrat. That number continued to plummet during Reagan’s administration as he too played on the fears and paranoia of the white electorate. The term “Reagan Democrat” soon came into vogue, as many former white Democrat supporters, even those who were pro-Union and held economic views dissimilar with the GOP, voted for Reagan instead. Only 28% of southern white males identified as Democrat during Reagan’s first run for the executive office.[7]

Reagan’s chief advisor, Lee Atwater, understood the power of race and how to manipulate it for their advantage. Atwater, himself, admitted to their race-based strategy:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut taxes and we want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’ So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”[8]

In his 1980 campaign, Reagan went to places like Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was infamous for the murder of three civil rights activists. Once there, Reagan voiced his support for state’s rights to an all-white crowd who knew exactly what he meant. During his presidency, Reagan continued using phrases like “welfare queen” to portray an image of the no-good-for-nothing, lazy, parasite. And that image for white voters was usually, a black man, or black woman.[9] To believe in small-government was wrapped up, throughout our history, in race, and perceptions of people that have been historically oppressed, and stereotyped.[10] And those on either side of that racial divide know this reality all too well. Senator Daniel Moynihan stated that the Democratic Party, especially by the 1980s, “was now seen by national voters as primarily one for minority voters.”[11] Even Democratic pollsters found that white Democrats (the ones who’d vote for Reagan) disliked black Americans and those feelings bled into their ideas of politics. To them, “blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.”[12]

Reagan supporter
Reagan supporter (Image taken from Google)

In a study done which used data of black Americans from the presidential elections of 1984 and 1988, the goal was to find out what inspired them to vote. Black Americans were motivated by their disapproval of the Reagan and Bush administration (Bush was running in 1988), and also buoyed by Jesse Jackson’s first attempt for the presidency in 1984. Black Americans who held especially negative views of Republicans voted in both elections. “The Reagan administration helped create a political climate in which blacks felt that the political stakes involved in 1984 were perhaps greater than in previous elections.”[13]

Fast-forward to 2008, when Barack Obama became the country’s first black leader. Pundits and so-called intellectuals were calling it a post-racial age, where the color line and discrimination were suddenly negligible. But as I’ve described in my brief history of race in this country, party politics, often assumed by researchers to be the major cleavage within American society, has been wrapped up in racial coding. It is no wonder that if you are a person of color, you will often vote Democrat, even if you may have conservative leanings. And that if you are a white working-class male, your choice will often be a Republican, despite the fact that their financial policies goes against your own vested economic interests. Barack Obama’s election may have changed some hearts and minds, but overall, those same divisions remain, oftentimes glowing like hot ores.




            There were definitely reasons to be excited about Obama’s election. My own parents viewed Obama’s win as transformative. “Be a lawyer like Obama,” they’d tell me, “If you be like him, you can also become president someday.” Ignoring the fact that I am never going to be in charge of the Harvard Law Review, there was at least precedence for us, a face we could point to in our textbooks, a memory we could bring up whenever feeling isolated and angry: an image of a black man and his family occupying the most powerful house on the planet. That being said, the enthusiasm and optimism for what was possible and for what the elections meant were overstated.

In both elections, Obama still lost the white vote to the Republican candidate. What helped Obama wasn’t more white voters changing their minds but actually, being able to turn out more people of color, and the changing demographics of the country. He received for the 2008 election, 95% of the black vote, 67% of the Latino vote, and 62% of the Asian vote. In contrast, 90% of John McCain’s support was from white voters.[14] In 2012, Obama improved upon his track record among people of color, but only garnered 39 percent among white voters, which was the same percentage that Bill Clinton received in 1992.[15] Those on the right-wing used dog-whistle tactics against Obama. Conservatives regarded Obama as the “affirmative action” candidate and questioned Obama’s background at Harvard, implying that he wasn’t intellectual or competent. These were of course baseless claims but in context of race in the U.S. it did fire up the white masses in the South, which had become a stronghold for conservative Republicanism. Even right-wing pundits claimed that once Obama would get elected, whites would be the ones to experience discrimination.[16] One can scoff at such a suggestion but that wouldn’t negate how real this apprehension is among many white Americans, who once more, view Obama and Democratic policies, through a racial lens. In a report published this year, white Americans were surveyed on a list of questions about race. “Half of white Americans — including 60 percent of the white working class — told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”[17] That’s a segment of the population that will suffer from perceived threat as has been studied in regards to why people become authoritarian right-wing ideologues, the type of people who protested against school busing in the 1960s and 1970s, thinking their worlds were about to end.[18]

Obama 1
President Barack Obama (Image taken from Google)

In “How Explicit Racial Prejudice Hurt Obama in the 2008 Election”, data from the 2008 American National Election Studies time series survey illustrates the connection between racial stereotypes about black Americans and feelings toward Obama. According to the study, around 45% of white respondents rated blacks as lazier than whites, and also 39% believed that blacks were less intelligent. These are sizable portions, and not mere fringe. What Piston ultimately discovered was that prejudice toward black Americans affected Obama more than even his white counterparts in the Democratic Party, such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.[19] One can suggest that this proves little since it doesn’t connect with how a person actually voted. But the numbers stated earlier do parallel Obama’s overall support among whites, and therefore, such conclusions cannot be dismissed when the outcomes were so similar to how respondents felt.

Similarly, how white respondents felt about affirmative action predicted their support or lack thereof for Obama. Ironically, if a white respondent was against affirmative action, that feeling would manifest in how negative they viewed Obama. However, if a white respondent was in support of affirmative action, it wasn’t necessarily true that person would even support Obama. Even among white Democrats in the survey, race was salient. Those who ranked race/ethnicity as high as third on a list of issues important when picking a candidate, and who opposed affirmative action, showed very low support for Obama.[20]

Remember that in 2008, there was a heated primary among Democrats, with Obama as the only black candidate. Before Obama and Clinton mended their divide with photo-ops and gestures, tensions were high between both camps. Clinton supporters were upset that Obama was derailing what many assumed would’ve been a rubber-stamped Hillary against whomever the Republican Party picked. It was a time of great optimism, given that in the end, whoever would win the Democratic primary would be the country’s first to do so. Still, that goodwill gave way to deep-seeded animus and race-baiting instead. The issue of Rev. Wright surfaced, and opponents derided Obama as being “Muslim,” implying that only a certain type of Christian were suitable to be president.  Again, the notion that their country was being taken away was palpable for certain white populations. That same fear that’s been driving white Americans to the polls to vote for conservative Republicans and therefore, against what they view as a Democrat Party sympathetic to black and brown people was once relevant to their final decision that year. And that fear can be heightened to a such a degree that for some, it can blind them to other more pressing issues, such as which candidate speaks toward their economic interests and values. White respondents, according to a study, were affected even by the size of the black American population in their district, which adds more evidence to the role of perceived threat in terms of race. Apparently, whites who lived in districts with more than 10 percent black Americans (which isn’t a huge number) were predicted to vote for McCain.[21]

Black voters and people of color in general, also responded to Obama’s run for office based on race. Yes, it’s true that black Americans are considered a solid voting bloc for the Democratic Party. But again, this didn’t happen overnight. It was a process that took centuries and was aided by the inclusion of more black Americans into the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Black Americans understood that their interests, once served by the Republicans, would now be better reflected in the modern iteration of the Democratic Party instead.[22] To remove this context, would be on par with removing words from a book and leaving behind an empty page.


There has been much done on the psychology of the American voter and most of it has been valuable. From understanding the limit of the (ideal) rational voter to figuring out how people effectively use their cognitive abilities to vote for the candidate that best reflects what they perceive as their needs, we’ve learned a great deal about the individual and their relationship to the group and society in how they decide one of democracy’s most important decisions: who and what to vote for.

However, we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of race, and how people of color behave politically. Before we move onto other interesting theories concerning genetics, or what formal model to fit our worldview into, we must continue to focus on communities of color as well. As mentioned, black and brown communities only gained their full civil rights (under the law) in the late 1960s and 70s.  Anything done before then about the American public and voter shouldn’t be discounted, much like we shouldn’t burn the Declaration of Independence because it was written by slave-owners. Knowledge is always essential, and knowledge grows, instead of simply being replaced in a vacuum. Therefore, we must do more to understand how the American democratic system functions and to do so without a clear-eyed determination on exploring race among black and brown Americans is like trying to scuba dive without first learning how to swim. This means moving ahead with studies that actually include a representative sample of black and brown Americans from different backgrounds, such as Asian and Latino too. So far, many samples, even those concerning racial attitudes, place emphasis on white Americans and their feelings and perceptions instead of also, their counterparts in other ethnic communities. And it’s imperative to place into context how groups of color experienced their history in the U.S.  It has been argued “that developing a distinct African-American political psychology begins with understanding that the historical and contemporary political, social, and economic structure of the United States has shaped Black life and that these structures have limited the life chances of African-Americans.”[23]

Protests 1
Protesters against police brutality


Protests 2
Protests against police brutality

For instance, black Americans voted at an all-time high (65.2%) in 2008. Obama received a net gain of over 3 million black voters as compared to what John Kerry received in his 2004 bid against George W. Bush. Also, 62% of those who didn’t consider themselves regular voters chose to express themselves through the ballot box that year. Black churches and black social organizations helped to increase voter turnout.[24] Most importantly, how race plays a role in elections overall is more complex than simply a black or brown person seeing someone who looks like them and automatically, supporting them, irrespective of political party (which is also based on race and context). Race is a construct and connected to group consciousness. When Bobby Jindal decided to run for president (although short-lived), he didn’t receive an outpouring of support from South Asian Americans. My own parents despised Jindal. They viewed him as someone who would take away healthcare, which is very important to communities of color, and harm them with his Islamophobic beliefs. Through the prism of history, my parents and others perceived Jindal and Ben Carson as siding with political forces and the white status quo that want to oppress them and curtail their civil rights. Although racial appeals alone do not increase black voter turnout, black candidates who “reach out to the black community enjoy higher levels of black support than their post-racial black counterparts.”[25] Black candidates who “outline the benefits they provide to the black electorate or demonstrate their connection to the black community can count on almost unanimous black support.”[26]

Obama understood this delicate balance of appealing to black supporters and energizing them while not scaring off white voters in the process. He probably understood he wouldn’t receive a majority of the white vote but losing a significant chunk would’ve greatly damaged his candidacy. Obama did the small but crucial things like attend events at black churches, to show his connection to the history of the black community. Throughout American history, black churches served as a focal point for organizing against systemic injustice, even among black Americans who are not as religious. Obama’s candidacy still suffered bruises along the way, and he couldn’t simply avoid race as an issue.[27] But unlike Carson and Jindal, who do want to avoid talking about race, Obama did the opposite and tackled the issue head-on. When the Rev. Wright controversy was at its peak, Obama delivered what many have since called his More Perfect Union speech. It was a positive racial appeal that discussed the legacy of racism in the U.S., and also the hope he saw in moving forward. Although white respondents in surveys showed no change in how they viewed Obama (maybe they didn’t pick up the racial cues toward people of color), black Americans increased their support for Obama after the speech. Latino-Americans were also encouraged by what Obama had said. Before the More Perfect Union speech, Obama was polling at around 37 percent among Latinos, but that number soared to 50 percent afterwards. Throughout the campaign, Obama continued to distance himself from figures like Wright, but never abandoned talking about issues important to the black American community.[28]

Piyush “Bobby” Jindal (Image taken from Google)

Therefore, it’s not just the image of the candidate that can elicit reactions based on race, but the topics as well, such as welfare and equity. Picture all of this as a system of Russian dolls. You remove the layers from each other, such as class, gender, political I.D. and ideology, until you reach the core, which is race. For example, there has been evidence that on issues like food stamps and the Iraq War, explicit racial cues play a big role influencing black Americans in their perception as opposed to white Americans who respond more effectively to implicit ones.[29] But those cues when activated can make a person vote or feel about an issue in a certain way than just mere ideology or party I.D. Religiosity is also affected by race and history. Religion is an important part of the American political arena, as different parties oftentimes try their hardest to prove how much they pray and go to church (and try to avoid talking about mosques, Hindu temples, or perhaps even synagogues if they actually want to win an election). The Christian Right, since the 1980s, is a major influence on the GOP, while Democrats are seen as the party for socially liberal and more secular values. This doesn’t wipe away the religiosity of many black Americans. Many black Americans share similar views with white Christians concerning gay rights. But on other issues like welfare, black Americans perceive these religious cues differently than their white counterparts.[30] So, even though, a black American can be against gay marriage, he or she would still interpret that as less of an issue for them and vote Democratic, a party that supports the LGBTQ community.

Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans are two of the fastest growing populations within the U.S., and studies show that they too respond to issues and candidates based on race. I cannot provide a historical overview of both groups like I did with black Americans (albeit a very brief one and should not be taken as comprehensive), I stress the value of understanding the political background and context for Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans as well.

Political scientists comment again and again on how there has been low turnout among Latino-Americans during elections. Even though Republicans seem to be losing the Hispanic vote and Democrats are gaining it, there hasn’t been a complete tapping in of this voting potential. But this is proof of how race does play a bigger factor, at least among certain groups, that party identification alone doesn’t sway voters of color. Data shows that non-Latino support for Latino candidates can fluctuate. Therefore, a Latino-American running for office cannot rely on non-Latino support and must fight for it. However, if he or she is Latino-American in a heavily Latino district, he or she can expect overwhelming support from the local Latino-American population.[31] Sometimes, it isn’t the candidate’s ethnicity that drives Latino-Americans to the poll, but the fact they live in a district that would be described as “majority-minority” (a phrase I hate but will use since it was included in the study). “Residing in majority-Latino districts serves as a disincentive to turn out among non-Latinos but appears to have a generally more positive effect on majority-Latino districts.”[32] This can tie into the group consciousness theory of how people who feel close to those who are like them and share similar experiences will feel motivated to act politically. Mexican-Americans, specifically, exhibit more voting participation when he or she has experienced discriminatory or prejudicial behavior towards them.[33]

Asian-Americans are currently more of a complex group to deal with. Not enough research has been done on Asian-Americans and their numbers have just become substantial. In-group identification based on race is essential but it’s not as simple as asking an Asian-American whether they identify with a politician because that person is also Asian-American.[34] After all, Asian-Americans constitute a large number of people, from varying linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. A person, who is first-generation Pakistani-American, born and raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, will have a different experience of the U.S. compared to someone whose parents arrived from Japan generations ago. Like Mexican-Americans, perhaps South Asian-Americans in general, will be more politically active when they too feel a sense of being discriminated against or profiled. Speaking from personal experience, for many people who looked like me and my parents, experiences of racial profiling and anti-Muslim sentiment, which damaged everyone from the ordinary Muslim-American to the Sikh-American mistaken for the Taliban, were prominent in the U.S.[35] My friends who were East Asian American did face prejudice as well, but not to the same degree as did South Asian Americans and Arab Americans did. My parents remember being taunted by neighbors, and being called “Paki” (which is a slur) and “foreigner.” With this in mind, they realize that things can be unfair, and that race plays a significant factor in how things are done in the U.S. The Asian-American experience is not just one thing but a myriad.

Despite the complications, race/ethnicity can be the common driving force behind electoral and non-electoral participation, since even as Asian-Americans, we are not in control of how we are viewed racially. “Like blacks, racial categorization for Asian Americans persists, and is readily identifiable on face value,” Junn and Masuaoka state in their study of Asian-American identity, “In this sense, racial group membership is not a choice, and categorization as a race other than ‘white’ will always be there and will always play a role. Yet, this racial distinction also means that the formation of Asian American racial group consciousness depends on the particular context.”[36] Race plays a role but the contours of what it is must be better defined and broken down by ethnicity instead.

Civill Rights Icon, Yuri Kochiyama
Civil rights icon, Yuri Kochiyama (Image taken from Google)



            W.E.B. Du Bois, a giant among intellectuals, once declared in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk that “For the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”[37] Although much has changed since Du Bois was around causing trouble for the racist elites, that statement rings true, even today. We can pretend that when someone answers a question about welfare, that person is dealing with that issue based on facts about social services. We can pretend that when someone sees a candidate and doesn’t trust them, it’s because of how they smiled. We can pretend that groups of people operate simply because of deterministic behaviors, and not because of past lessons taught by the harshness of reality. Or, we can begin to take into account how at the heart of our political participation are our perceptions of and about race.

Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois (Image taken from Google)

I would like to also add that it should be important to dig deeper into the psychology of black and brown peoples as well. Again, Du Bois explains this best:

“Whatever we may say of the results of such contact in the past, it certainly forms a chapter in human action not pleasant to look back upon. War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery, —this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the ea and the heathen without the law. Nor does it altogether satisfy the conscience of the modern world to be told complacently that all this has been right and proper, the fated triumph of strength over weakness, of righteousness over evil, of superiors over inferiors. It would certainly be soothing if one could readily believe all this; and yet there are too many ugly facts for everything to be thus easily explained away. We feel and know that there are many delicate differences in race psychology, numberless changes that our crude social measurements are not yet able to follow minutely, which explain much of history and social development.”[38]

Different writers bring up these “delicate differences” in every generation. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, which was conceived as lessons told to his nephew growing up as a black male in the U.S., “In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down—that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day—it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury.”[39] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work Between the World and Me, relays the message of how being black in the U.S. is a world of its own, separate from what we try to understand in terms of “mainstream” society and American life. “The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear,” he writes to his son, “And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker. However you call it, the result was our infirmity before the criminal forces of the world.”[40]

These “delicate differences” must be further explored, in terms of how race manifests in issues and voters’ minds, how race is perceived by emerging groups, such as Latinos and Asian Americans, and finally, how race can motivate people to go against their own interests (i.e. Donald Trump supporters). We’re not living in 1950s America anymore. We’re not even living in the 1990s for that matter, when Democratic and Republican strategists were only fighting over the white voting electorate, and leaving black Americans in the dust.[41] No. We are in a new age where people of color are holding the power, but only if they’re motivated and inspired by the correct cues and appeals. Political psychology can help make them feel like they matter by including their perspectives, and in the process, making our democracy real for everyone.

[1] Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., “Tocqueville as Critical Race Theorist: Whiteness as Property, Interest Convergence, and the Limits of Jacksonian Democracy,” Political Research Quarterly 62 (2009): 639-652.

[2] Tillery, Jr., 645.

[3] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[4] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Signet Classics, 2012), 17-39.

[5] Ian Haney Lopez, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), ebscohost.

[6] Lopez, 16.

[7] Merle Black, “The Transformation of the Southern Democratic Party,” The Journal of Politics 66, Nov. 4 (Nov. 2004): 1001-1017.

[8] Lopez, 57.

[9] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[10] Lopez, Dog Whistle Politics.

[11] Paul Frymer, Uneasy Alliance: Race and Party Competition in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 112.

[12] Frymer, 112-113.

[13] Katherine Tate, “Black Political Participation in the 1984 and 1988 Presidential Elections,” The American Political Science Review 85, No. 4 (Dec. 1991), 1159-1176.

[14] Thomas Edge, “Southern Strategy 2.0: Conservatives, White Voters, and the Election of Barack Obama,” Journal of Black Studies 40, No. 3 (Jan. 2010), 426-444.

[15] Chris Cillizza and Jon Cohen, “President Obama and the white vote? No problem,” The Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2012, accessed Dec. 1, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2012/11/08/president-obama-and-the-white-vote-no-problem/.

[16] Edge, “Southern Strategy 2.0”

[17] Janell Ross, “White Americans long for the 1950s, when they didn’t face so much discrimination,” The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2015, accessed Dec. 1, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/17/white-americans-long-for-the-1950s-when-they-werent-such-victims-of-reverse-discrimination/.

[18] Frymer, Uneasy Alliances.

[19] Spencer Piston, “How Explicit Racial Prejudice Hurt Obama in the 2008 Election,” Political Behavior 32, No. 4 (Dec. 2010), 431-451.

[20] Brian F. Schaffner, “Racial Salience and the Obama Vote,” Political Psychology 32, No. 6 (Dec. 2011), 963-988.

[21] Todd Donovan, “Obama and the White Vote,” Political Research Quarterly 63, No. 4 (Dec. 2010), 863-874.

[22] Frymer, Uneasy Alliances.

[23] Tasha S. Philpot and Ismail K. White, edited., African-American Political Psychology: Identity, Opinion, and Action in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: 2010), Introduction.

[24] Tasha S. Philpot, Daron R. Shaw and Ernest B. McGowen, “Winning the Race: Black Voter Turnout in the 2008 Presidential Election,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 73, No. 5 (2009): 995-1022.

[25] Christopher T. Stout, Bringing Race Back In: Black Politicians, Deracialization, and Voting Behavior in the Age of Obama (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 69.

[26] Stout, 69.

[27] Stout, Bringing Race Back In.

[28] Stout, 86-95.

[29] Philpot and White, African American Political Psychology, 71-97.

[30] Philpot and White, 135-146.

[31] Matt A. Barreto, “Si Se Puede: Latino Candidates and the Mobilization of Latino Voters,” The American Political Science Review 101, No. 3 (August 2007): 425-441.

[32] Matt A. Barreto, Gary M. Segura and Nathan D. Woods, “The Mobilizing Effect of Majority-Minority Districts on Latino Turnout,” The American Political Science Review 98, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), 65-75.

[33] Pei-te Lien, “Ethnicity and Political Participation: A Comparison between Asian and Mexican Americans,” Political Behavior 16, No. 2 (June 1994), 237-264.

[34] Jane Junn and Natalie Masuoka, “Asian American Identity: Shared Racial Status and Political Context,” Perspectives on Politics 6, N. 4 (Dec. 2008), 729-740.

[35] Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (New York: Penguin Group, 2008)

[36] Junn and Masuoka, 736.

[37] Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 17.

[38] Du Bois, 140-141.

[39] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1962), 68.

[40] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 17-18.

[41] Frymer, Uneasy Alliances


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