WASHINGTON — In August 2009, in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews asked me about the angry, frequently irrational voters who were showing up at town-hall-style meetings around the country to denounce President Obama’s health care policy. Having watched TV news reports, I knew that many of those voters were older white Americans who benefited from Medicare. Why would they oppose a health care policy for others?
Matthews asked whether I thought that some of those voters opposed Obama’s Affordable Care Act because they were uncomfortable with having a black president. I responded that I did.
After carefully stating that I didn’t think all opposition to Obama’s health care plans stemmed from racial animus, I said, “I think 45 to 65 percent of the people who appear … (at those town hall meetings) are people who will never be comfortable with the idea of a black president.”
As you might have guessed, right-wing pundits were outraged by my remarks, which were widely misquoted. According to my critics, I had called the town hall protesters “racists.”
That controversy served as one more reminder — as if I needed one — that Americans remain unable to have a rational discourse about race and its ramifications. That’s most unfortunate, since perceptions about race and ethnicity go to the heart of our polarized political culture.
A new study by the widely respected Pew Research Center confirms my analysis of those older white voters: The study found a growing generation gap in the electorate, with older voters more likely to support Republicans while younger voters are more likely to vote Democratic. Those party alliances, Pew found, are strongly tied to racial perceptions.
“Race and ethnicity are strongly associated with views about government, and in no small part account for some of the greater liberalism of the younger age groups and greater conservatism of older groups. The polling finds that older generations … do not fully embrace diversity.”
The Pew study also confirms my strongly held view that the nation’s fractured political climate is due, in part, to white voters’ fears of a browning America. While younger white Americans have largely embraced the cultural and demographic changes that have transformed politics, entertainment and courtship, older white Americans are uncomfortable — if not alarmed — by those changes.
“For many (ages 65 to 83) … Obama himself may represent an unwelcome indicator of the way the face of America has changed. Feelings of ‘unease’ with Obama, along with higher levels of anger, are the emotions that most differentiate the attitudes of (older Americans) from those of the youngest generation.”
Take the matter of interracial dating. Overall, Americans have become much more tolerant over the last several decades; 87 percent of Americans now say that they “agree” it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other, according to Pew.
But take a look at the generational break when Pew asked people whether they agreed “completely” with interracial dating: 75 percent of those between 18 and 28 said they did, but only 37 percent of those ages 65 to 83 agreed “completely.”
Notice that neither Pew researchers nor I called those older voters “racists.” The word that I would use to describe the resistance that older white voters have shown toward diversity is “prejudice,” with its roots in the phrase “pre-judge.” They are stuck with long-held notions about such things as gay marriage and interracial dating; those hoary stereotypes are hard to shake loose.
Indeed, those notions, no matter how wrongheaded, are core convictions for some, and they carry them into the voting booth. Older voters — Pew calls them the “silent generation,” a cohort just younger than the so-called Greatest Generation — turn out heavily in elections, so politicians, especially Republicans, cater to them and their prejudices.
That helps explain why the issue of illegal immigration has become an intractable mess. It is not a difficult problem to solve: Comprehensive immigration reform would put those undocumented workers already here on a path to legal status. But the GOP base, which skews older and whiter, won’t hear of it.
Meanwhile, leading political figures, including Obama, studiously avoid the subject of race for fear of provoking a firestorm. The election of a black president didn’t exorcise our remaining racial demons. Instead, Obama’s rise has made it impolite — even politically hazardous — to speak of them. But they remain there in the background, casting shadows over our politics.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)