White alienation, black satisfaction and the Obama era


Bloomberg News

One of the remarkable trends of the Barack Obama era is the transference of rage from left to right. Anybody remember “Bush Lied, People Died” bumper stickers? To some extent, this is the natural sway of the political pendulum, with angry lefties supplanted by angry righties after the party in the White House changes.

But there appears to be a longer-term process of alienation under way, with conservative whites — talking to you, tea party — increasingly assuming the posture of aggrieved outsiders. The “angry white men” who fueled the Newt Gingrich revolution in 1994 are seemingly angrier, more alienated and as white as ever in 2013.

A new ABC News-Fusion poll contains a remarkable finding. When asked whether “people like you” are well represented in Congress, twice as many nonwhites (47 percent) as whites (24 percent) say yes. Of course, “people like you” is a Rorschach of a phrase that can encompass ideology, sex, region, class, religion and more. Race is only one identifier.

Still, the sharp disparity between whites, a 48-percent plurality of whom are Republicans or Republican-leaners, and nonwhites, 70 percent of whom are Democrats or lean that way, is striking. It’s especially notable given the demographic and ideological realities of Congress. Of the 431 members currently in the House of Representatives (there are four vacancies), 80 percent are white, according to the House Press Gallery. The Senate, which has three Hispanics, two blacks and one Asian, is 94 percent non-Hispanic white.

In a nation that is 63 percent white, whites are significantly overrepresented in Congress, and conservative whites even more so. Democratic House candidates collectively won 1.4 million more votes than Republican House candidates in 2012, yet Republicans retained control of the House majority. Conservative senators from rural red states exercise the same power as senators representing vastly larger and more liberal coastal states. California has 66 times the population of Wyoming, yet Wyoming’s two Republican senators equal California’s two Democrats in voting power.

In sum, whites (especially conservative whites) are robustly overrepresented in Congress yet twice as likely as nonwhites to feel as if people like them are not well represented.

Gary Langer, who conducted the poll, was also struck by the racial disparity, but he cautioned not to overinterpret it. The poll, he said, was taken after the government shutdown, from which Obama and Democrats were widely perceived to have emerged “with the upper hand.” Consequently, in the immediate aftermath, nonwhite voters might have been more inclined to perceive Washington reflecting their values.

A recent National Public Radio poll provides additional context. According to the poll, 53 percent of blacks said their lives in general have gotten better in recent years while only 10 percent said their lives have gotten worse. A remarkable 86 percent reported being satisfied with their lives overall. Juxtapose these findings with black unemployment that is consistently almost twice as high as white unemployment; black median adjusted income that is 59.2 percent that of whites (only a slightly higher share than in 1967); and more than one third of blacks reporting that they experience racism “a few times” a year.

There may be varied reasons for white alienation and black satisfaction. But it seems unlikely that the Obama presidency isn’t one factor that contributes to both.

Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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