It was immediately clear, from his triumphal introduction at the 2004 Democratic National Convention through the giddy early days of his audacious campaign, that Obama had reordered the political landscape. And though it is hard to remember now, his supporters initially saw this transformation as one that promised a “post-racial” politics. He attracted staggering crowds, boasted of his ability to win over Republicans, and made good on this boast by attracting independent voters in Iowa and other famously white locales.
Of course, this was always a fantasy. It was hardly a surprise when George Packer, reporting for The New Yorker, ventured to Kentucky and found white voters confessing that they would vote for a Democrat, but not Obama, simply because of his skin color. (As one said: “Race. I really don’t want an African-American as president. Race.”) Packer’s report conveys the revelatory dismay with which his news struck. “Obama has a serious political problem,” he wrote. “Until now, he and his supporters have either denied it or blamed it on his opponents.” Reported anecdotes of similar flavor have since grown familiar enough to have receded into the political backdrop. One Louisiana man told NPR a few weeks ago that he would never support Senator Mary Landrieu after her vote for Obamacare. After ticking off the familiar talking points against the health-care law—it would kill jobs and so on—he arrived at the nub of the matter: “I don’t vote for black people.” (Never mind that Landrieu is white.)
We now know that the fact of Obama’s presidency—that a black man is our commander-in-chief, that a black family lives in the White House, that he was elected by a disproportionately high black vote—has affected not just the few Americans willing to share their racism with reporters but all Americans, across the political spectrum. Social scientists have long used a basic survey to measure what they call “racial resentment.” It doesn’t measure hatred of minorities or support for segregation, but rather a person’s level of broad sympathy for African-Americans (asking, for instance, if you believe that “blacks have gotten less than they deserve” or whether “it’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough”). Obviously, the racially conservative view—that blacks are owed no extra support from the government—has for decades corresponded more closely with conservatism writ large and thus with the Republican Party. The same is true with the racially liberal view and the Democratic Party: Many of the Americans who support government programs that disproportionately offer blacks a leg up are Democrats. But when the political scientists Michael Tesler and David Sears peered into the data in 2009, they noticed that the election of Obama has made views on race matter far more than ever.
By the outset of Obama’s presidency, they found, the gap in approval of the president between those with strongly liberal views on race and those with strongly conservative views on race was at least twice as large as it had been under any of the previous four administrations. As Tesler delved further into the numbers, he saw that race was bleeding into everything. People’s views on race predicted their views on health-care reform far more closely in 2009 than they did in 1993, when the president trying to reform health care was Bill Clinton. Tesler called what he saw unfurling before him a “hyperracialized era.”
In recent history, racial liberals have sometimes had conservative views on other matters, and racial conservatives have sometimes had liberal views. Consider another measure, called “anti-black affect,” a kind of thermometer that registers coldness toward African-Americans. Prior to 2009, anti-black affect did not predict an individual’s political identification (when factoring out that person’s economic, moral, and foreign-policy conservatism). Since Obama has taken office, the correlation between anti-black affect and Republican partisanship has shot up. Even people’s beliefs about whether the unemployment rate was rising or falling in 2012—which, in previous years, had stood independent of racial baggage—were now closely linked with their racial beliefs.
Racial conservatism and conservatism used to be similar things; now they are the same thing. This is also true with racial liberalism and liberalism. The mental chasm lying between red and blue America is, at bottom, an irreconcilable difference over the definition of racial justice. You can find this dispute erupting everywhere. A recent poll found a nearly 40-point partisan gap on the question of whether 12 Years a Slave deserved Best Picture.
In 1981, Lee Atwater, a South Carolina native working for the Reagan administration, gave an interview to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. In it, Atwater described the process by which the conservative message evolved from explicitly racist appeals to implicitly racialized appeals to white economic self-interest: