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How should political leaders talk about racism?

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Despite decades of "colorblind" rhetoric, the importance of race in American electoral politics is getting harder to deny. Plenty of people have known this all along; others have taken longer to catch up.

A few political science scholars have already revealed the racial dynamics behind public opinion since Obama took office — even in evaluations of the first lady. And last week, Hillary Clinton's comments about Trump's supporters belonging in a "basket of deplorables" made all sorts of headlines; the phrase won the candidate decidedly mixed reviews.

It doesn't seem like anyone really has an answer to the question of how leaders should respond to racism and other forms of bigotry. And this is an old problem.

I was fortunate to spend part of this past week at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, thanks to the generosity of itsfellowship programs. The Kennedy Library holds an extensive collection of materials from the Democratic National Committee — great material for the research I'm doing on how American political parties became nationalized.

The DNC collection is from the 1950s, so it provides some insight into how the formal party organization tried to reformulate its national strategy during the Eisenhower years against the backdrop of deep tensions within the party and the nation over racial violence and exclusion.

It turns out that people with a wide range of opinions on civil rights were contacting Paul Butler, the chair of the DNC (i.e., the position that Debbie Wasserman Schultz just resigned and Donna Brazile now holds), about their grievances.

Some of this stuff was from state and local party leaders, and there was quite a bit of correspondence between Butler and Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP at the time. But some of the letters are just from citizens who wanted to express their views. If you've never looked at letters from the 1940s and '50s that were sent to politicians who had something to do with civil rights, well, you're in for some jaw-dropping racism.

There's this letter, which, based on my research at this collection, the Hubert Humphrey papers, and the Truman library, isn't too unusual. And it removes all doubt that comments sections are more about continuity than about change.

Letter to Paul Butler, 1955 JFK Library

Letter to Paul Butler, 1956.

There's also this letter, which is typed and has a slightly calmer tone yet is no less alarming by 21st-century standards. The takeaway point is that the South resisted forced social equality, and that the possibility of a "race war" loomed.

Letter to Paul Butler, 1956 JFK Library

Letter to Paul Butler, 1956.

Page 2, letter to Paul Butler, 1956 JFK Library

Page two, letter to Paul Butler, 1956.

Butler's response to both letters follows a reserved but cordial script: In response to the handwritten letter, he writes:

Thank you for your letter of March 5. I have read this letter with interest and appreciate having your views.

I sincerely hope that the platform as drawn up by the Democratic Party at its convention in August will be one that you can conscientiously vote for and that you will be with the party that represents by far the majority of the American people — the Democratic Party.

The typed letter received a slightly more extensive response, with an explanation that "the Democratic National Committee must remain impartial until the delegates to the Convention have selected the party's nominees."

Butler's responses, 1956 JFK Library

Butler's responses, 1956.

There are a couple of scholarly and analytical angles here. First, the retreat of the Democratic Party into a more neutral position after its stronger stance on civil rights in 1948 illustrates what Phil Klinkner and Rogers Smith describe in their book The Unsteady March: Progress on racial issues has not been in one direction only, and backlash and reversal have accompanied advances.

The struggle for civil rights has also shaped American political institutions, a fact that is as intuitive as it is often overlooked. Megan Ming Francis's book addresses this in its account of the NAACP in the 1920s, and there's certainly plenty of work about race and political parties — but rarely engaging the framework of institution building. Here, we get a sense of how tensions over racial integration and civil rights exerted pressure on party leaders and altered the stakes of party processes.

But the big question isn't one that is often tackled in mainstream, empirical political science about institutions and party politics: How do we want political leaders (including but not limited to party leaders) to respond to sentiments like these? As many people have been asking since Clinton's remarks last week, is it okay for a leader to dismiss or insult citizens? Even if those same citizens don't hesitate to insult and dismiss others — or much worse?

Going back to the 1950s, Butler's references to process are revealing. This is usually how we deal with these things in the US context: We assume that with proper information and a fair process, the best arguments will win out. But as I pointed out in a post a few months ago, designing effective institutions can only go so far in addressing substantive problems like racism and other forms of bigotry.

At some point — as Butler's Democrats would soon learn — we have to confront those problems directly, not with convention votes and delegate allocation formulas.

Historical context is important here, too. Clinton's task was different. Not only was she speaking in public, not via private correspondence, but she was talking about her opponent's supporters. Butler was dealing with a constituency that had traditionally been part of his own party. Neither scenario makes the question any easier, but it does suggest that these might be two different tasks.

The views expressed in the letters to Butler would also not have been considered "fringe" or extreme at the time, although Butler was certainly exposed to different perspectives on the issue, and to pressures from civil rights groups.

Furthermore, it's less obvious than ever how much moral discounting is in order for neutrality in the face of evil. Yes, the mid-1950s were a different time, but Democrats from Harry Truman to Hubert Humphrey to some of Butler's DNC colleagues were already taking stances against violence and discrimination. And the distinction between fringe and mainstream views may not be as clear as we once thought. That poses a real problem for democracy — one that institutional design cannot address.

Democratic values, and the institutions they inspire, require that we treat all voices as equal. But sometimes other values require that we do not. Even leaders who are charged, as Butler understood himself to be, with leading a large coalition.

Especially those leaders.

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