"White supremacy" is a contender for the official phrase of 2017.
After President Trump won the 2016 election, searches for the term jumped to 10 times the normal level according to Google Trends. After the Charlottesville rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, when the term hit its all-time high on search engines, 100 times the normal rate, searches never fell back to normal. Of the 2,365 times the phrase appeared in the New York Times since 1997, a third have been in the past 12 months, according to a search in the Nexis electronic database.
Interest in the phrase is a measurable symptom of an undeniable phenomenon: Race, racism, and accusations of racism have risen to the fore of America's political debate. For an observer looking at the big picture it can be hard to understand.
Most measures of racial equality are improving. Those measures that are not improving are, for the most part, sitting at or near all-time bests. The most popular politician in America is our African-American two-term ex-president. And if you look at how black and white Americans are living their daily lives, there seems to be more racial harmony than ever before.
But in political debate, racial issues are more widespread and contentious than they've been in a generation. What's behind this?
The too obvious answer is the election of Trump. In a multitude of ways, both because of what he has said, and how he has said it, but also because of what his enemies have reacted to him, Trump's arrival in the Oval Office has worsened race relations. In some ways, this is a matter of his own doing, and in some ways, it's more the doing of his critics and opponents in media, activism, and politics.
But it is important not to regard Trump as the sole cause. This strife would be occurring even absent Trump, for his election was a result, not the cause, of nationwide white working-class ire. And beneath the whole issue is that Democrats desperately need race as a prominent issue if they are to regain political power. They have proved themselves willing for decades to highlight racial division.
A less racist country
There are still plenty of ways in which African-Americans go through life at a disadvantage. The most obvious is that police violence against African-Americans persists as a deadly, infuriating, and even terrifying problem. Also, subconscious racism is still widespread. But the overt, direct racism of the type that was so clear before the civil-rights era is fading into oblivion.
The Marist Institute for Public Opinion asked members of the public if they mostly agree with, mostly disagree with, or are unsure about the white supremacy movement. Four percent said they mostly agree. Even that number sounds high, but 4 percent in a poll like that can be ignored. Here's a comparison: A 2016 poll found 5 percent of African-Americans saying the Emancipation Proclamation was wrong. Another found that 7 percent of the public supposedly believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Does that seem likely?
The "alt-right," a subculture that gets much media attention for its racism and race obsession, found support from a similarly negligible 6 percent in that Marist poll.
Insofar as attitudes toward race can be measured, white racism against blacks is fading. Support for interracial marriage has climbed from 4 percent to 87 percent. The Economist reports that "racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI fell 48% between 1994 and 2015." Its article, headlined, "Racist behaviour is declining in America" concluded, "Americans as a whole are still moving away from bigotry."
Black people are still the most likely to be victims of hate crimes, but the rate is far lower than it had been. The FBI tallied 2,125 anti-black hate-crime offenses in 2015, the most recent year for which complete data is available. That's less than half the total in 1995, when hate-crime statistics begin.
Black people are also more likely than any group to say their race or ethnicity has made life harder for them. But it's still a minority of black respondents, 40 percent, who say that. In other words, a majority says race has not made life harder for them.
In that Gallup survey on race, pollsters asked: "Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?" Results show almost no racial difference: 89 percent of whites expressed satisfaction, as did 88 percent of blacks.
The numbers are mixed, and still far from perfect, but the pattern is that white people are less likely to express racist views, African-Americans are less likely to experience racism, and the opportunities for black people are either improving or not getting worse.
Nevertheless "race relations" are seen as worse, and racism is increasingly seen as a real problem for America.
Racial politics are worsening
"How big a problem is racism in our society?"
For 22 years, the Pew Research Center has asked the public that question. In August this year, a record-high 58 percent said it is a "big problem." This was more than twice the number that gave the same answer in President Obama's first month in office, and higher than at any point during the 1990s, when hate crimes against black people were twice as common.
So, racism is seen as a bigger problem today than a generation ago. Black people are more likely to claim racism is a big problem (81 percent) than white people are (52 percent), but the recent increase in people giving this answer comes mostly from white Democrats.
Gallup has asked a related question on how respondents see race relations between whites and blacks. Throughout the first decade of the century, an average of 6 percent of Americans said "very bad." In 2015 and 2016, the "very bad" responses leaped 17 percent and 14 percent.
This poll is one indication of the fact that race as a political issue is much more heated today than in the recent past. This conflicts with data that suggest declines in racist actions, racist views, and the effects of racism.
Why is racial politics getting so much worse while racial issues on an individual level — the experience of racism by minorities and racist views by whites — are not?
The Trump effect
Let's start with the president. Much of the media heralded Trump's victory as a triumph of white racism. "There's no such thing as a good Trump voter," wrote Slate.com chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie. "People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don't deserve your empathy."
"Economic Anxiety Didn't Make People Vote Trump," a headline in the left-wing Nation magazine, read, "Racism Did."
For journalists and activists who see things this way, Trump revealed and cultivated racism that had long been simmering beneath the surface of white America. One problem with this thesis, as a piece of electoral math, is that the very voters who swung Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan into the Republican column in the 2016 presidential election were Obama voters in 2008 (and often also in 2012) who then voted for Trump. It is implausible to suggest that those who voted twice for Obama are racists just because they then voted for Trump.
Still, it's impossible to deny that Trump's behavior and language as a candidate and as president has sullied racial politics. He entered the political scene by pushing the theory that Obama was not born in America. The argument was loaded with racial sentiments, suggesting that the first black president was illegitimate and born in Africa. Trump launched his campaign in mid-2015 with a speech painting Mexican immigrants as "rapists." He catapulted into a commanding primary lead in November 2015 when he called for a ban on Muslim immigrants, and then in February 2016 was slow to disavow support from former KKK leader David Duke.
Even if Trump never deliberately tried to attract the likes of Duke and the alt-right, he did attract them, largely with his gleeful disregard for political correctness. "He tells it like it is," was the most common argument for Trump from supporters in the early Republican primaries. That didn't mean "he speaks with strict fealty for the facts." It meant, "he doesn't care about what the elites think he should or shouldn't say."
As president, Trump stoked racial politics with what he did and didn't say, and the way he said it. After the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, he went out of his way to avoid putting blame squarely where it belonged, instead citing bad guys "on both sides" and bizarrely claiming that "fine people" stood alongside the white supremacists.
In another gratuitous move, Trump in September inserted himself into the controversy of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Over the course of many tweets, he called on NFL owners to fire players who refused to stand, and scolded NFL players for not showing more gratitude for the privilege of high-paying jobs. Nothing in Trump's tweets was explicitly racial, but as the kneeling began in 2016 as a protest against police mistreatment of African-Americans, it was easy to read a racial undercurrent into Trump's comments.
So, Trump has contributed to toxic racial politics both by whom he has inspired and whom he has angered (professional athletes and black political activists). But much of the blame lies with the reaction to Trump rather than with the president himself.
The anti-Trump freak out
The shock of Trump's win over the overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton spurred countless reactions like those of the Slate and Nation articles quoted above. Politicians and commentators cried that a racist had won on the strength of a racist vote. The rational conclusion among Trump opponents was that nearly half of the country was either racist or fine with racists.
Much of the news media decided the same thing and began credulously reporting a spate of alleged hate crimes supposedly inspired by Trump. The New York Times even launched a new section, "This Week in Hate," which "highlights hate crimes and harassment around the country since the election of President Trump."
The day after Trump's election, media outlets uncritically carried the story of a Muslim woman who said Trump supporters, wearing Trump hats, attacked her and ripped off her hijab. This story was later proven to be a fabrication. The press also credulously carried stories of Trump supporters painting swastikas and Nazi and other racist slogans. Many of these graffiti were, however, perpetrated by Trump's critics, apparently seeking to show him and his supporters as racist.
Liberal commentator Dean Obeidallah argued that "Trump victory would embolden bigots," citing a black church in Mississippi that was burned and the words "Vote Trump" painted on the wall. This turned out to be a hoax, too. The arsonist was a black congregant.
Media reports purporting statistical evidence of a wave of hate crimes almost invariably cite data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a notoriously unreliable political group called a "fraud" by even liberal reporters. SPLC slaps the label "hate" on all manner of groups, from Nazis to Christian conservatives.
Even the Times' "Week in Hate" column admitted midway through the year that hate crimes had fallen over the course of Trump's first six months.
The liberal media followed up their credulous reporting with a string of profiles of the "alt-right" and white supremacist Richard Spencer. Mother Jones and the Atlantic ran lengthy, weirdly warm magazine pieces describing Spencer as "nattily-dressed" and "articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks."
From reading the elite glossies, one would believe that the big winners from Trump's unlikely victory were white nationalism or white supremacy. Some white nationalists believed this, too, and held a rally in Charlottesville in August on the pretext of opposing the removal of Robert E. Lee statues in that Virginia college town. Much of the news coverage of the "largest white supremacist gathering" in generations played perfectly into their hands even though only about 500 people attended.
Media coverage of the supposed Trump wave of hate crimes and vandalism falsely implies that white supremacy is the dominant movement in America today, which helps bolster the idea that radical action is needed to combat it.
Decades of racial poisoning
The poisoning of racial politics did not, however, start with Trump. The Left in academia and in politics has been hammering for years on the theme that America is a fundamentally racist society. This school of thought takes the truth that black people operate at a disadvantage and expands it into an idea that there is some form of conspiracy.
Black men still earn about 27 percent less than white men; black women earn about 17 percent less than white women, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Black children are far more likely than white children to grow up without a father. This raises the risks of becoming a criminal, dropping out of high school, and living in poverty. And the problems are cyclical. Girls raised without a father are more likely to have babies out of wedlock, and boys raised out of wedlock are less likely to marry the mother of their children.
While many commentators who speak on such systemic racism are more interested in rooting out problems than assigning blame, some liberal academics have been dead set on blaming these disadvantages on persistent white supremacy, suggesting it is the organizing principle of American society. Left-wing professors have preached this for years, and in the past decade, this doctrine seems to have gone mainstream in society and in Democratic politics. Every perceived racial slight is treated as a "micro-aggression" that reflects a constant effort to dominate minorities and preserve white supremacy.
As these arguments bubbled into mainstream political discourse over the past decade, liberals kept playing the old saw that conservatism is a philosophy of white supremacy. The popular argument among liberal commentators in 2016 was that the "economic anxiety" Trump was tapping into was a weak cover for rank racism. In this way, there was a political advantage to elevating anxiety about race and racism.
The political play going on here is crystal clear. Democrats desperately rely on dominance among the black vote, and on good black turnout in order to win. The only good election days they have had in a decade were the two with Obama on the top of the ticket, and the concomitant spike in black voter share and black turnout. Obama is the only Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since the post-Watergate election of 1976. The effects occurred downticket, too: 2008 and 2012 are the only two presidential years since 1964 to see Democrats win the White House and also gain Senate seats.
Democrats need, somehow, to juice the passion of African-American voters and get them to the polls. Nominating talented black presidential candidate did the trick. But there's not a deep bench of those. The party needs something else to rally the black vote.
Ideological shifts make this harder. The Democratic Party is moving hard to the Left, which entails moving further away from the median black voter.
Self-identified liberals are now about half the party, according to a recent Pew Research poll. In 2008, about 33 percent of Democrats called themselves liberals while 23 percent called themselves conservatives. That 10-point gap has more than tripled. In 2017, liberals account for 48 percent of Democrats while conservatives are only 15 percent, the lowest fraction since the poll began.
These remaining conservative Democrats are, disproportionately, black. Pew found that black Democrats were slightly more likely to call themselves conservative than liberal, by a 30 to 28 percent margin, and 40 percent called themselves moderate.
As Democrats lurch further left, away from their relatively conservative black voters, the bulk of their policies and the tone of their rhetoric are becoming less appealing to African-Americans at the same time as parties are weakening as institutions. McCain-Feingold combined with the Citizens United case that struck down parts of it has harmed the ability of parties to raise money (they used to be able to get massive checks known as "soft money"), while strengthening outside groups such as super PACs.
The largest caucus among House Democrats is the Progressive Caucus, which has grown by 30 percent over the past decade, according to Roll Call.
As the Left and Democrats become less tolerant of dissenting opinions, they risk alienating black voters, and losing black voters would mean electoral doom for them.
About a third of black voters told Pew that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The Democratic base and the Democratic donor class almost uniformly support abortion, and often abortion is their top issue. That helps explain why so many Democratic leaders, including Clinton and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, have said that supporting legal abortion is a non-negotiable position for Democratic politicians.
Opposing gay marriage is prima facie proof of bigotry, according to many on the left. But only 51 percent of African-Americans support gay marriage, polls show.
Weaker parties, a widening ideological gap between the party's masses and its black minority, and a narrowing on the Left of the bounds of permissible dissent have raised a real threat for Democrats that could weaken their hitherto vise-like grip on the black vote.
Democrats don't merely win the black vote, they dominate it in all parts of the country. Clinton won the black vote 89 to 8. Obama won it 93 to 6 in 2012. In heavily black congressional districts, Republicans don't even try to compete. Democrats in statewide races also tend to get above 85 percent of the vote.
Lower black turnout hurt Democrats big time in 2016. Black turnout fell by nearly 5 percent from 2012 to 2016. With a stronger black turnout, Clinton might have won Pennsylvania and Michigan, and thus the White House. That depressed black turnout probably helped Republicans pick up governorships in Maryland and Illinois.
In short, Democrats depend for survival not only on winning the black vote, but on winning nearly 90 percent of it, and on black voters turning out in large numbers. Anything that threatens that dominance threatens the party as a contender for power.
Thus it is in the Democrats' political interest, and they know it, to keep alive racial resentments and to avoid allaying black fears that white people, and the Republican Party, systematically hold them down. And all the while, academia is pouring this same idea into the public ear, and graduating new young voters whose education has been tinged or even dominated by the divisive modern "disciplines" or race, class and gender studies.
So, amid increased awareness of a stubbornly persistent disadvantage for blacks, there's little evidence white supremacy, white nationalism, or racism in general is on the rise. Instead, what we have is a president happy to be ambiguous on racial matters for political gain, a media eager for a narrative of ascendant white supremacy, a left-wing ideology that sees America as fundamentally racist, and an out-of-power Democratic Party that needs racial strife in order to become relevant again. Racial strife in America is not about the people of the nation nearly as much as it's about the politics.