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American Racial Politics

Seminar Leader:
Rogers M. Smith


As the 2012 election approached, public opinion surveys suggested what exit polls later confirmed: American voters were dividing sharply along racial and ethnic lines, as much or more than ever before. Since 1964, Republican presidential candidates have always won a plurality if not a majority of the white vote, Democrats large majorities of non-white voters. But in 2012, Barack Obama was re-elected president with the smallest percentage of the white vote of any successful presidential candidate in history: 39%, while Mitt Romney won 59% of white voters. Obama succeeded because he won 93% of African American voters, 71% of Latinos, and 73% of Asian Americans—larger percentages of the latter two groups than he won in 2008.
Yet during the campaign, neither candidate discussed race, the persistence of many kinds of racial inequalities in America, or racial policy issues. The two campaigns, the pundits, political science analysts, and the voters themselves in opinion polls all affirmed that the election centered on the economy. Why, then, were voting patterns so sharply polarized by race, to a far greater degree than the economic differences between different racial and ethnic groups would indicate?
The 2012 Teachers Institute of Philadelphia seminar on American racial politics prepared teachers and their students to reflect on these and many related issues by exploring how politics has affected the creation and development of racial identities and statuses, and how racial identities and statuses have affected American politics, all though American history—usually in ways bound up with but not wholly determined by economic interests. The seminar examined how conceptions of race emerged in colonial and revolutionary America as part of efforts to justify slavery and the taking of tribal lands, and how the Constitution and the new national republic were affected by growing rifts over slavery that culminated in the Civil War. It then explored the rise and fall of the Jim Crow system of de jure segregation. before turning in its second half to race, politics, and policy contests in the modern era. It focused on the rise since the 1960s of rival groups advocating opposed color-blind or race-conscious policies, the former increasingly identified with the modern Republican Party, the latter with the Democrats. And it considered how the clash between these perspectives affected policy-making on education, employment, welfare, housing, criminal justice, and immigration issues, as well as the 2012 election.
Throughout, teachers of different subjects at different levels, coming from diverse racial, geographic, and economic backgrounds, debated critically the contrasting academic perspectives they read on every topic. They often probed and challenged the views of the authors they studied. as well as those of the seminar leader and each other. But they did so in ways that were honest, thoughtful, constructive, and a spur to fresh thinking and insights by all.
At the same time, they created a range of fascinating curriculum units: on the mathematics of racial redistricting, on slave memories of Reconstruction, on the environmental “racial justice” movement, on past and current struggles over school segregation, on the decisions of 19th century African Americans to move to Liberia, on African Americans in graphic novels, on race and the No Child Left Behind Act, and on racism in the media. These units provide the best evidence of the success of the seminar, for they show vividly how and why, even as Americans have come to find it difficult even to discuss race in national politics, race continues to be bound up with struggles for political, economic, and social success in America, in ways that affect every sphere of American life. By helping students to understand those relationships, these units promise to empower them to deal with the challenges of race and politics in America more successfully in the future than the nation has done in most of its past and present.

Unit TitleAuthor


“We got to use what we got.” How Birmingham’s Children Became Foot Soldiers on the Front Lines in the Fight for Civil Rights Birmingham, Alabama 1963

Joyce Arnosky
Keywords: Alabama, Birmingham, Black History month, civil rights, segregation

Race and Politics of Redistricting Who Will Win?

Vicki Baker
Keywords: African American History, America, civics, Politics, race

“No Child Left Behind”: Does It Help Me? Change is Hard But Not Impossible

Monica A. Brundage
Keywords: AYP, no child left behind, self advocacy

The African-American Graphic Novel: Discovering, Examining and Creating Graphic Narratives of Racialized Experience

Tara Ann Carter
Keywords: civil rights, graphic novel, race

American Racial Politics and A Little Town Called Arthington

Pat Mitchell-Keita-Doe
Keywords: Africa, Arthington, History, racial politics

Transition from Slavery – A Study of Reconstruction

Sandy O’Keefe
Keywords: American civil war, Civil War, Reconstruction, Slavery

Environmental Justice and Social Action

Leslie Petruzzi
Keywords: environmental justice, racism, social action, Social change

Liberty and Justice for (Not) All

Rita Sorrentino
Keywords: American History, civil rights era, justice, liberty, Reconstruction

“Can We All Get Along?” Evaluating Racism in the Media

Elisabeth R. Yucis
Keywords: American History, Media, racism