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OPINION

On the issue of race, politics get in the way of the facts

Every American should have a vested interest in ending the persistent systemic racism in our society. But the Pew report shows that Americans just don’t see it that way.

A photograph of Denise McNair is displayed along with others at the Say Their Names memorial exhibit at Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade on July 20 in San Diego. The traveling memorial is sponsored by the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art and features photographs of 200 Black Americans who lost their lives due to systemic racism and racial injustice. Eleven-year-old Denise McNair was one of four Black girls killed in the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 in Birmingham.Mario Tama/Getty

It’s awfully hard to fix a problem if we can’t even agree that it exists. And when it comes to racial inequities in America, the disagreement is based not in fact, but in party politics.

A Pew Research Center study released Thursday shows that partisanship not only affects Americans’ views on ways to end systemic racism, it also colors whether Americans believe it exists at all.

Let’s start with a statement of fact: Data from the federal government evidences the nation’s persistent racial disparities in wealth, unemployment, incarceration rates, police killings, and more.

Other studies clearly evidence the outsized impact of lack of access to healthy food, climate change, unequal education, and the coronavirus pandemic on Black and brown Americans.

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There is also a life expectancy racial gap. Take the roughly 30-minute walk or ride two stops on the Orange Line from Roxbury to Back Bay; that’s the distance between where the average life expectancy is 59 years old to where it’s 92, according to a 2012 Virginia Commonwealth University study. It may be worse now, because the pandemic widened the life expectancy racial gap nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s also true that policies born of racism harm everyone, not just Black and brown folks. Take for example the practice of paying tipped employees below the minimum wage, which was widely adopted in postbellum America as a way to avoid paying former slaves. Broadly speaking, racism has cost the US economy $16 trillion since 2000, according to a study by Citigroup.

If, as our nation’s foundational documents claim, we were all bestowed the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at our creation, then every American should have a vested interest in ending the persistent systemic racism in our society. But the Pew report shows that Americans just don’t see it that way.

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While 78 percent of Democrats said they believe the increased attention on historical racism and slavery is a positive development, only 25 percent of Republicans said the same.

When it comes to solutions to systemic racism, 74 percent of Democrats said more needs to be done to achieve racial equity, according to the study. But only 22 percent of Republicans agreed.

The divide extends to views about the very existence of racial inequities in America. While 85 percent of Democrats said that white people benefit from the advantages denied to Black people, 78 percent of Republicans said white people do not enjoy such privilege.

The political divide on the issue of race is not new, but it is widening.

“These are not new divides between the parties, but they have grown in recent years,” said Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at Pew.

It’s not hard to see why. The crescendo of calls for racial justice, and its embrace by Democrats, has coincided with a fundamental shift in the core value powering the modern Republican Party: grievance. Gone are the days when substantive issues like fiscal policy, limited government, taxes, and health care drove the Republican agenda. The party is now sustained largely by its own victimhood.

The biggest example of this is the GOP’s ongoing embrace of the big lie about the 2020 election being stolen and baseless claims of election fraud that are driving a wave of state-level voter suppression laws at a rate not seen since the Reconstruction era.

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But the Republican lodestar of ax grinding is also evidenced in its immigration rhetoric, including recent false claims that the new surge in COVID cases is caused by migrants crossing the southern border, and in its efforts to redefine the Black Lives Matter movement as a dangerous terroristic organization that poses a threat to police officers and the white, suburban way of life.

It’s also turned “critical race theory” — a phrase that has been conflated with basic race consciousness in school history curriculums — into a buzz term that scares parents into believing their children are being taught to feel guilty about being white.

Small wonder that efforts on Capitol Hill to restore the Voting Rights Act or at the very least agree on a bipartisan police reform package have, so far, proven fruitless. Few issues have remained as politically polarizing as race in America, and policy solutions are impossible when the nation cannot agree to a common set of facts — even when the data supporting them stare them in the face.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr can be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.