If you’ve been around Democratic politics in North Carolina and the South for long, you’re asking today: “Is the backlash coming this time? Or is race-baiting politics finally dead?”
You ask because you’ve seen race-baiting and “white backlash” work before.
Today, maybe, things have changed. Maybe the videos of police violence, the Black Lives Matter protests – and the fact we’ve been home watching it all – have fundamentally changed how white Americans look at our past, our present problems and our future together in this country.
A veteran Democrat from Eastern North Carolina thinks so: “There’s been a seismic shift. There’s more recognition of the evils of the past.” He thinks that’s especially true of young people, but also among older whites.
Another North Carolina native, nationally known pollster Harrison Hickman, said, “I have not seen any direct questions about racial attitudes. What I have seen is a sharp increase in support for Black Lives Matter. I think something is going on, and I think the protests have made a difference.”
He added, “It’s possible that white poll respondents are giving ‘socially acceptable’ answers, and it’s possible that their attitudes, and poll answers, will revert with the passage of time. But one difference this time is that leaders are not waiting around to see if things will change.”
Elected leaders everywhere are taking down Confederate statues and monuments. Mississippi took down its flag. Washington’s NFL team will no longer be the Redskins.
The change may be hurting President Trump’s reelection chances.
The New York Times reported this month, “From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Mr. Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Mr. Trump’s policies.”
A Monmouth University nationwide poll in late June found that “67% of the public says racial and ethnic discrimination in the U.S. is a big problem, while just 17% say it is not a problem at all.”
There’s a big partisan gap. While 86% of white Democrats and Independents said discrimination is a big problem, only 40% of Republicans agree.
Some Democratic strategists fear that calls to “defund police” might turn off voters who are open to reforming police practices.
They remember history. Race has decided North Carolina elections since 1950, when Frank Porter Graham lost a Senate race to Willis Smith. Smith’s campaign circulated flyers headlined: “White People: Wake Up.”
In the 1960s, white Southerners began abandoning the Democratic Party after it embraced civil rights.
In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater won the South by voting against the Civil Rights Act, though Lyndon Johnson swamped him everywhere else. In 1968, Richard Nixon won the Presidency by following the Southern Strategy of Strom Thurmond, the old South Carolina segregationist.
From 1972 to 1996, Jesse Helms won five Senate races with blatantly racist campaigns. That’s why Chowan University took his name off a campus building this month.
The election of a black President in 2008 raised hopes that we were past race. Then came Donald Trump.
Maybe today – 12 years after Barack Obama’s election, 60 years after the Greensboro sit-ins and 160 years after the Civil War – change has finally come.