Strange Bedfellows? Polarized Politics? the Quest for Racial Equity in Contemporary America

By King, Desmond S.; Smith, Rogers M. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Strange Bedfellows? Polarized Politics? the Quest for Racial Equity in Contemporary America


King, Desmond S., Smith, Rogers M., Political Research Quarterly


Some scholars see contemporary American politics as characterized by "strange bedfellows" on racial issues and by polarization driven by economic, not racial, views. The authors argue instead that on most issues with racial dimensions, political actors and institutions are aligned into two racial orders, one favoring "color-blind" policies and the other "race-conscious" measures. Coalitions on two issues - affirmative action in employment and majority-minority districting - are explored to support this "racial orders" thesis.

Keywords: race; African Americans; redistricting; affirmative action; polarization

Some scholars suggest that policy coalitions on racial issues are now composed of strange bedfellows that confound traditional American alliances (Hochschild 1989, 1584; Kim 2004, 349-50). Others contend that race has "been absorbed into the main redistributive dimension of liberal-conservative politics," taken to be driven by economic interests (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006, 11, 23). We explore two issues involving basic American institutions that are often said to display unusual coalitions: affirmative action in employment and majorityminority districting.1 We find that most actors and institutions are aligned as predicted by analyses of "racial institutional orders." Defections from these orders are rare, contextually explicable, and useful in predicting outcomes. The orders are consonant with modern conservative and liberal camps, but they cut across class lines, so the conservative-liberal spectrum in politics today may be constituted by racial as well as economic views. A racial-orders framework can thus clarify both racial "strange bedfellows" and modern political polarization, even as it documents political sources of American racial inequalities.

Racial Institutional Orders

Racial orders are durable alliances of elite political actors, activist groups, and governing institutions united by agreement on racial policies. They seek political power to resist or to advance the measures to promote racial equality that are politically pivotal in their eras (King and Smith 2005). 2 These orders have long provided structure and content to American racial identities (Lieberman 2005). In every period, one order has promoted arrangements thought to advantage those then labeled "whites." A rival order has sought to end many of those advantages.

We interpret the racial-orders framework to require analysts to identify the foundational structures of economic and political status for those designated as having particular racial identities in each historical era, the policy disputes that actors regard as important for those foundational structures' future, and the political coalitions that align around these disputes. American history displays three sets of racial orders.

In the slavery era, from 1789 to 1865, a proslavery and white supremacist racial order contested with an antislavery order composed of both white supremacists and racial egalitarians. Slavery was a regionally concentrated but nationally supported foundational economic structure that initially had massive white acceptance. But in the antebellum years, opposition grew in the form of northern states' antislavery laws and religious movements and black resistance efforts. At the height of the proslavery order, political institutions denied electoral rights to African Americans in most but not all states, while economic and legal institutions buttressed slavery and limited rights even for free blacks. As challenges rose, struggles over the extension of slavery became the main policy battleground on which the rival racial orders fought, shattering political parties and producing the fragmented 1860 election. Abraham Lincoln's slim victory led in turn to the Civil War, slavery's end, and, emerging through coalition-building and coercion over the next three decades, a new enduring reconfiguration of the nation's racial alliances. …

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