The search for unity: 4 ways Americans can bridge our racial and political divisions

Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”

A new survey about U.S. politics shows that race still complicates how Americans address civic and socioeconomic challenges 118 years later — and partisanship continues to influence the problem now, as it has for generations.

While Republicans, Democrats, independents and apolitical respondents to the survey are united in their desire to break through the wall of divisiveness, 7 out of 10 Americans believe that our political, social and racial divisions are driven from the top down by politicians and news outlets. It is one reason why only 14% of Americans believe politicians will cross the political line to solve problems over the next decade.

Our nation too often lacks national leadership or a public vocabulary to build a pathway of trust to solve problems. As a result, we have to find it in our local communities. Yet political partisanship, and more so race, influences so much of how we address such challenges.

According to the new Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground survey, we are more united in our belief that divisiveness is a major problem than we are in a pathway to remedy it.  

Nov. 3, 2020, in Sparks, Nevada. (Photo: Scott Sonner/AP)

After reading the report, I offer four pathways to help us curb the divisiveness that hinders our efforts to address civic and socioeconomic challenges:

Humanize people rather than harmonize party. We invented political parties to articulate our views — not to invent views for us to fight over.

According to the survey, 71% of Americans believe we have more common ground than one would assume based on the vitriol of our political language. And this is true across the board with Democrats (65%), independents (76%), Republicans (76%) and apolitical people (70%). Black, Hispanic and white majorities believe the same.

That is why people of different races and parties are working together to address real problems in communities across the country. Partisanship is too high a bar to leap over now. What is in our reach, however, is partnership.

And like a biblical Noah gathering animals in pairs to sail the waters of uncertainty in his time, we political animals must become pragmatic people working in public-private partnerships in our quest to improve society.

Focus on problems, not people

See the problem as the enemy. Let’s use the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6 as an example. The rioters involved in it were primarily white, male and supporters of President Donald Trump, based on available information. So it is safe to assume they are Republicans — or at least not Democrats.

The problem was the loss of life, destruction of property and the psychological threat this riot caused to duly elected members of Congress and the American public. The enemy is the violence and the other destruction — not the GOP.

Respondents to the survey think that making the enemy white conservative men, or the red party writ large, is a losing proposition if the goal is to move beyond divisiveness. Approximately three-quarters of Americans said it is “important to recognize that most Republicans are not as extreme as the people who attacked the Capitol.” 

Proximity matters, but watch for a tendency toward prejudice. More than half (57%) of Americans believe we can reduce divisiveness by shifting decision-making from the federal to the local level, although party affiliation shows a nuance in thought.

More Republicans (70%) and independents (59%) support this shift than Democrats (53%) and apolitical people (45%). But racial differences show the color line: Only 40% of Blacks support it compared with 60% of whites and 65% of Hispanics.

Black Americans’ faith in the federal government recognizes the role it played in addressing “states’ rights” and “local control” politics after the Civil War and through the civil rights movement.

The states’ rights position become a “dog whistle” theme that kept African Americans tethered to Jim Crow citizenship, and often left them politically powerless in communities they lived in and supported with their taxes. So a shift of focus to local matters comes with a caveat we cannot overlook.

Bipartisanship found on justice reform

Take a lesson about finding common ground on criminal justice reform. Reforming prisons through sentencing guidelines, providing an education to incarcerated adults or banning the box on employment applications are some of the few policy issues to gain sizable agreement among Democrats and Republicans, the American Civil Liberties Union and Koch Industries, urban and rural, whites and people of color.

Why? Our criminal justice system is a common-ground experience for “We the People” in ways many public institutions are not.

With about 10.7 million people going to jail every year, 2.3 million men and women behind bars and at least 112 million people in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam having a criminal record, our local, state and federal stakeholders have decided to put priorities above party and reform beyond race. We need to apply the same calculus to other areas of American life. 

To avoid a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” we need to identify areas of compromise and to develop a shared civic vocabulary that is bigger than party or race.

This does not require us to deny the effects of racism nor, at the other end, to leave unchallenged the claim that race is the sole reason for lack of economic and social advancement in American society.

It just demands our attention to ideals and acts of faith that will entail an uncomfortable journey beyond politics as usual if we want to walk together past the color line of the 21st century.

Gerard Robinson, fellow of practice at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, is a former Virginia secretary of education.

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