Whites in the Deep South: Are They Partisan, or Just Racist?

Where ever there's racially polarized voting, there's probably racism too.

02.26.14 4:54 PM ET

On Tuesday, NPR aired a report from Louisiana, where Senator Mary Landrieu is running against a strong Republican challenger. The reporter, Alisa Chang, spoke to a few voters to get their views on the contest, and one of them was completely candid with his perspective:

One of the men sitting under the tree one particular afternoon is Beau Broussard. He’s not Cajun, but they let him hang out here anyway. Broussard says for years, people running for political office have visited this oak tree. […]

“I don’t vote for black people, lady,” he says. “No, ma’am. I don’t vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That’s the way I was raised.”

This is refreshing. Often, in stories about race and politics, you’ll read voters who try to place their racial discomfort in coded terms, with complaints about “welfare” and “urban dependency.” But, to his credit, Broussard doesn’t bother with codewords or dog-whistles. He doesn’t vote for black people, and that’s just the way it is.

With that said, it’s easy to dismiss this as an isolated case. Americans are broadly uncomfortable with discussing race, especially as it relates to campaigns and elections. Political observers will dance around the racial dimensions of political rhetoric—like Mitt Romney’s attacks on welfare in the 2012 election—liberals will dismiss race as subordinate to class, and conservatives will rail against accusations of racism, treating them as worse than actual discrimination against minorities.

But the truth of the matter is that there are more Broussards than we think, as evidenced by the racial polarization of elections in the South. In statewide elections throughout the region—and in the Deep South especially—whites are overwhelmingly likely to vote against Democrats, regardless of class, education, or marital status.

Louisiana provides a good example. In the 2008 presidential election, 84 percent of whites voted for John McCain. Likewise, in the 2010 Senate election, 72 percent of whites voted for David Vitter. There were no exit polls for the 2012 race, but given the extent to which Romney matched McCain’s performance, you can assume a similar level of a racial polarization.

This story is also true for Louisiana’s neighbor, Mississippi—which saw 88 percent white support for McCain, and 89 percent white support for Romney—as well as Alabama, which had similar totals. And of course, in each of these states, African Americans voted for Democrats in similar or larger numbers.

To be sure, this alone isn’t proof of animus. It’s possible that this reflects a non-racial, deep-seated conservatism. Which is why it’s worth noting a study from last year that measured racial resentment in the states of the former Confederacy. Researchers found two things: First, that whites in these areas expressed more racial resentment than their counterparts in the North, and second, that they were dramatically more likely to vote Republican and support Republican policies. Which fits with what we know about the region’s political history, namely, that its conservatism is tied to its slave-owning past.

None of this is to say the Republican Party is “racist,” or that Democrats don’t have their own problems on race. But one thing is clear: to whites in the South, the Democratic Party is seen as friendly to minorities—and blacks in particular—in a way that isn’t true of Republicans, and that drives voting behavior.

It’s worth noting the degree to which this also applies to Appalachia. As Jonathan Chait points out for New York magazine, Barack Obama performed worse in the regions of the Appalachian mountains than his white counterpart, John Kerry. As with the Deep South, you could attribute this to ideology or cultural difference. Or you could listen to the voters themselves:

“I’ve talked to people—a woman who was chair of county elections last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for a black man.” Patrick said he wouldn’t vote for Obama either.

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Why not?

“Race. I really don’t want an African-American as President. Race.”

What about race?

“I thought about it. I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race. That’s my opinion."

Yes, segregation is illegal, blacks have formal equality under the law, and our country has made huge cultural strides in recognizing the humanity of African Americans. But, as a force on our country’s politics, racism won’t just slink away like a dejected suitor. It remains as a powerful influence, and we don’t help ourselves by ignoring it, or making excuses.