Race Vs. Class: What Most Divides America?

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October 12, 2016; Washington Post

An article in the Washington Post last week asked: “Is America more divided by race or class?” Both have risen to the top of the nation’s collective consciousness recently, particularly during the rather unorthodox 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump has seen his appeal to “make America great again” ring particularly true with the white working class but has been unable to match Hilary Clinton’s popularity with people of color. Is it race or class that most determines where someone ends up on the voting spectrum?

According to the Post, it’s actually an intertwining of both. An analysis by the newspaper on responses to the 2012 and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) surveys concluded that while African Americans and whites are consistently widely politically divided regardless of income, high-income Latinos and whites share similar political views. When asked about their support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), African Americans and whites held steady at 75 percent and 50 percent in favor, respectively, regardless of income. Latino voters strongly supported the ACA in low- and middle-class respondents, but support from high-income Latinos narrowed to mirror that of wealthy whites.

In another example, low-income voters of all three races overwhelmingly opposed cutting domestic social program budgets. This opposition held for African Americans regardless of income, but opposition to cuts decreased in both Latino and white voter groups as income levels rose.

Generally, African Americans and whites who identify as Democrats remain so regardless of income level, but white independents tend to switch to the Republican Party as their wealth increases. Latinos, who in lower-income brackets are 20 percent more likely to be Democrat than whites of the same income, are less likely to be Democrats in at higher-income levels, where their numbers match those of their white counterparts.

The similarities in political views between high-income whites and Latinos should make Republicans sit up and take notice (though, given the remarks by their 2016 presidential candidate about Latinos, this may not be the year to take action). But while these surveys and polls are interesting, they are also limited, catching a representation only of a particular moment in time and without all of the complex variables that impact how people think. As the Atlantic has pointed out, polling Latinos is particularly difficult given the diversity among Hispanic subgroups and language barriers, for example. Additionally, the groups polled by the CCES may not make it to the polls at all. Voter ID laws disproportionately affect low-income and communities of color, suppressing voter turnout in these populations, which traditionally vote Democrat.

What might be most interesting about the results of the Post’s analysis are the questions it raises: How do the lives of Latinos, African Americans, and whites in the United States differ at each income level? What are the similarities? What influences Latinos at a higher-income level to have political preferences almost identical to whites? And what accounts for the significant differences at all income brackets between African Americans and whites? Some of the answers are obvious, but a deeper dive might uncover valuable insights towards a more equitable society.—Melinda Crosby