How The Racial Divide is Reinforced by Partisanship

Image: People, including a man wearing a confederate flag, hug after taking part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest following the multiple police shootings in Dallas
People, including a man wearing a confederate flag, hug after taking part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas, on July 10, 2016.Carlo Allegri / Reuters

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By Perry Bacon Jr.

Americans’ views on issues of racial inequality and policing heavily depend upon what party they belong to, potentially complicating any effort by President Obama and other figures to unify the country and create new policies in the wake of officer-involved shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and the killing of five officers in Dallas last week.

“You have really stark differences in perceptions of this basic phenomenon. And the solutions really depend on which reality are you seeing. Are you seeing these as one-offs (the officer-involved shootings) or do you think it is epidemic? That is where we really hit a political impasse,” said Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, which studies cultural, religious and racial trends in the U.S.

Related: Obama to Dallas Mourners: 'We're Not as Divided as We Seem'

Obama, speaking at the funeral of the Dallas officers on Tuesday, said, “I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.” He urged Americans to “reject such despair” that the country is hopelessly divided by race and that “things might get worse.”

But while America’s longstanding black-white divide still exists, an equally difficult challenge to political solutions on these issues may be partisan differences.

Democrats, according to polls, are much more likely to view America as having enduring racial problems than Republicans.

An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released on Tuesday showed that 77 percent of Democrats consider the racial discrimination that blacks experience as either “very serious” or “extremely serious,” compared to just 23 percent of Republicans who hold that view. Asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, 73 percent of Democrats of approve it, while 70 percent of Republicans disapprove of the activists.

A recent Pew Research Center poll suggests that on racial issues, partisanship may even be a great divider than race itself.

According to the survey, released late last month, 78 percent of white Democrats say that the country needs to make more changes to ensure blacks have the same rights as whites. That is similar to the 88 percent of blacks who felt that way.

But among white Republicans, just 36 percent said more changes were needed to ensure equal rights for blacks.

Obama, in a series of remarks while he was in Warsaw, Poland for a NATO summit and then at the funeral in Dallas, has suggested Americans can be united on issues of policing and race. He is optimistic about the race divide in America, arguing on Saturday that “when we start suggesting that somehow there's this enormous polarization, and we're back to the situation in the '60s — that's just not true.”

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“Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime,” Obama said in Dallas.

People, including a man wearing a confederate flag, hug after taking part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas, on July 10, 2016.Carlo Allegri / Reuters

He is pressing, instead of a broader conversation about racial feelings, for a more targeted one on policing practices and how they can be changed to improve relations between officers and the everyday citizens, particularly African-Americans.

Obama has repeatedly referred to the work of the task force on policing he created in 2014 and will meet with that group again on Wednesday.

Related: Obama Police Commission Sidesteps Most Controversial Reforms

“I want to start moving on constructive actions that are actually going to make a difference, because that is what all Americans want,” the president said on Saturday.

And the president is arguing that it is possible to embrace both the police and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Americans of all races and all backgrounds are rightly outraged by the inexcusable attacks on police, whether it's in Dallas or anyplace else,” Obama said on Saturday.

Related: Obama on 'Painful' Week of Shootings: America Is Not as Divided as It Seems

He added, “That includes protestors. It includes family members who have grave concerns about police conduct, and they have said that this is unacceptable. There's no division there. And Americans of all races and all backgrounds are also rightly saddened and angered about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and about the larger, persistent problem of African Americans and Latinos being treated differently in our criminal justice system.”

Dallas police officers take part in a candlelight vigil at Dallas City Hall following the multiple police shootings.CARLO ALLEGRI / Reuters

But while Americas may be concerned about the deaths of Castle, Sterling and the Dallas officers, they may see the underlying solutions differently.

In a speech on Tuesday, Donald Trump made arguments that many conservatives agree with: that there should be a greater focus on killings of blacks by other blacks, instead of just when a shooting involves a police officer, and that there is a strong anti-police movement in America.

Related: Police Killings May Reflect Larger Struggle for Reform

“It's time for our hostility against our police and against all members of the law enforcement to end and end immediately right now,” Trump said in a speech in Virginia Beach on Tuesday.

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In a CBS News interview on Sunday, one-time New York Mayor and GOP presidential candidate Rudolph said, "of course black lives matter, and they matter greatly, but when you focus in on the 1 percent of less than 1 percent of the murder that's going on in America, and you make it a national thing and all of you in the media make it much bigger than the black kid who's getting killed in Chicago every 14 hours, you create a disproportion."

Related: Black Lives Matter Has Shifted National Debate, Despite Controversial Reputation

Black Lives Matter activists, meanwhile, are pressing for changes that police and some conservatives are resistant to: requirements that all officers undergo implicit bias training, taking away military-style equipment from local departments and ending so-called broken window policing.

Prominent campaigner DeRay Mckesson was arrested in Louisiana Saturday and released on bond Sunday.Max Becherer / AP

And they are using sharp language to criticize the police, with Deray McKesson, a leading BLM activist, bemoaning in an interview on MSNBC this week “the abuses that the police inflict on people of color time and time again.”

“We know to be true that the police have killed nearly three people every day in 2016 and killed someone every day in single day in 2015 but 18 days and in every single state in this country,” he added. “We can live in a world where the police don’t kill people.”

To be sure, some reforms are already happening.

South Carolina, with GOP support, has expanded the use of body cameras for its officers, a reform that has support among both activists and some law enforcement officials. Figures in both parties have embraced greater efforts to diversify police forces, which often have fewer people of color than the communities they serve.

But proposals like a broader criminal justice reform bill, as Obama is pushing for or the national standards for the use of force by police, as Hillary Clinton proposed on Tuesday, may not yet have enough bi-partisan support.

“When you think about Democrats and Republicans, you think about economic positions and social issues dividing them. But they are divided on racial justice issues too,” said Cox.