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The Decline of Racial Politics

If the findings of a new Pew poll are any indication, race—or more specifically, the declining prospects of African-Americans—ought to be at the very center of the presidential campaign. Today, notes Juan Williams, summarizing the grim numbers,

only 20 percent of black Americans think life is generally better for black people than it was five years ago, the lowest positive response to that question in polls going back 24 years. Only 44 percent of black people expect life to get better; that’s well below the 57 percent who predicted a better life for black people when the same question was asked in 1986.

And yet, race is playing the smallest role in any election since 1964. Part of the reason for this is the absence of a black Democrat using the presidential primaries to campaign indirectly for the leadership of black America. There is no Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton in the contest. Barack Obama’s appeal, though it has a racial element, is primarily to the same sorts of upper-middle-class Americans who once thought Adlai Stevenson a model of gentlemanly intellect. But more importantly there has been a shift in attitudes that make it harder to use race as a political issue. The Pew Poll found that

71 percent of whites and 59 percent of Hispanics feel that personal behavior—values, education, hard work—is what holds back those black Americans still trapped in poverty. But what is most striking is that a small majority, 53 percent, of black Americans agree that “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.”

Confirmation of the shift described by the Pew Poll can be found in the controversy surrounding a new survey by Congressional Quarterly, which found that Detroit was the most crime ridden city: “More people were murdered in Detroit than in San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose combined—and each one of those cities has a bigger population than Detroit.” The findings were contested by the American Society of Criminology, which denounced it as an “irresponsible misuse” of crime data. Not surprisingly, Detroit’s African-American police chief concurred. “Every year,” said Ella Bully-Cummings, “this organization sends out a press release with big, bold lettering that labels a certain city as Most Dangerous, USA…. It really makes you wonder if the organization is truly concerned with evaluating crime or increasing its profit.”

But strikingly, the Detroit Free Press refused to be assuaged by Bully-Cummings’s attempts at displacement. The Free Press took mocking aim at the chief’s

bizarre defense that the report didn’t account for all the crime victims who are druggies and felons. That, of course, is supposed to show that crime isn’t “random” in Detroit, so the city is not that dangerous…. Applying the chief’s logic, why even bother to count undesirables as whole people? When a drug addict gets gunned down by a drug dealer, or an ex-con is shot in a robbery, those should be half-murders. A victim with two priors maybe counts as only a third.

(The phrase “whole people” refers, of course, to the Three-Fifths Compromise, the amendment to the Constitution that defined slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of allocating seats in the House of Representatives.)

Philadelphia’s soaring black-on-black murder rate similarly has made it harder to play racial politics. In 2003, corrupt mayor John “If you want to play you have to pay” Street won re-election by campaigning against an alleged white racist plot against him. But the new mayor Michael Nutter (also an African-American) won by making honest administration and cleaning up the violent crime that’s shaken the city—and not institutional racism—the central campaign issues. “The sad truth,” argues Henry Louis Gates Jr., “is that the civil rights movement cannot be reborn until we identify the causes of black suffering, some of them self-inflicted.” There’s no political hay to be made out of that conclusion—which may be why it’s had such a hard time gaining traction.