The Return of the White Primary?

By Guest Columnist Feb 06, 2008

Originally posted on Have we returned to the "White Primary" in American politics? With all of the flat and simplistic discussion of "race" vs. "gender" in the Democratic presidential debate, I think it’s time we turn our eyes and ears over to the GOP for a moment. The nominating contest on the Republican side is in many ways a better reflection of issues of race, gender and power in contemporary America. White primaries were the political response to the brief period of black enfranchisement in the Reconstruction era. Southerners, through the vehicle of the Democratic Party in the one-party "Solid South," excluded Southern blacks from voting in the primaries, and thus, voting at all. The 1944 Supreme Court case Smith v. Allwright put one nail in the coffin of white primaries, while the civil rights movement, especially Fannie Lou Hamer’s and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the Democratic Party at the 1964 Convention and organizing for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were other nails. And we know the story of electoral realignment from here: Southern whites and Dixiecrats fled the Democratic Party for what hitherto had been the "party of Lincoln", while by 1972, Shirley Chisholm was making history seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. More than forty years later, it seems that the modern Republican Party consists mostly of 21st century Dixiecrats and Know-Nothings. And while African Americans aren’t de jure excluded from participating in the Republican primaries, de facto they are. The obvious is clear: all of the GOP presidential contenders are conservative white men (Alan Keyes’ short entrance doesn’t count, as he was never on a ballot anywhere). But more important to examine is the composition of the voters participating in the Republican primaries. The exit polls from the GOP primaries held before Super Tuesday (not including Wyoming for data reasons) show that in every single one, the majority of Republican voters are male, and white. African Americans make up no more than 3% of GOP primary voters (3% in FL, 2% in SC and MI, 1% in NV and NH, and 0% in IA). Now more than ever, black voters are clear about the fact that the Republican Party does not represent their interests, whether around racial or economic justice, or frankly, even empty symbolic politics. It is an altogether different story as to whether the Democratic Party effectively represents black voters and issues of racial justice (political scientists Paul Frymer and Alvin Tillery, Jr. offer compelling arguments on this score). White men, on the other hand, clearly see the GOP as representing their racial and gender interests (economic interests are a different story for working-class whites). This pattern of racial voting among whites, and gender voting among men, is what the media and pundits should be digging into. Dorian T. Warren is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He is also a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. Warren specializes in the study of inequality and American politics, focusing on the political organization of marginalized groups. His research and teaching interests include race and ethnic politics, labor politics, urban politics, American political development, social movements and social science methodology.