Race and the race: Does Obama’s race still matter?

By J Brooks Spector 1 October 2012

Race has always played a role in American politics. Even before the final ratification of the Constitution, it was a contentious issue centred on how populations would be enumerated for the purpose of apportioning congressional seats and the election of the president. More than two centuries later, many original questions remain. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Thomas Jefferson’s political enemies sometimes called him the country’s first black president because of the constitutional compromise that gave southern states more electoral weight because of their slave (and obviously non-voting) populations. And Abraham Lincoln was caricatured by his enemies in political cartoons showing him with a distinctly dark skin and long, simian arms, supposedly emblematic of African-Americans, and his support for emancipation. Race naturally had an unprecedented role in the 2008 election, but Barack Obama’s effort to be re-elected means race may well take on bigger currency as the presidential race enters its final month.

Four years ago, when Barack Obama first tried for the nomination, race seemed to be an almost insurmountable roadblock. But in Obama’s case, initially, the question of race was a confusing one. For a great many people, Obama didn’t fit comfortably into the standard American binary racial divide. As the son of an African exchange student and a young white American who met and married in polyglot Hawaii, he had spent his childhood years in Indonesia and Hawaii before university study in Los Angeles, New York City and Boston. And all of this was before he embarked on a political career in Chicago and his immersion in that city’s black political and social culture. Or, as the biographical shorthand sometimes had it, it was how Barry (his favoured high school name) became Barack.

For many African-Americans and whites alike Obama’s life narrative was so exotic, the question of “who was he really” remained unanswered for many. As The Economist recently noted, “In 2007 Hillary Clinton had much higher favourable ratings among blacks than Mr Obama did. Many of Mr Obama’s earliest prominent supporters were white and Jewish, and indeed he has faced consistent criticism, first as a candidate and then as president, for being too aloof from the black community. As president, when Mr Obama has made his race an issue, he has often used it to challenge blacks in ways that a white politician could not.”

Ironically, it wasn’t until he was forced to rupture his long-time parishioner’s relationship with his racially incendiary minister, Jeremiah Wright, and then to deliver his iconic speech on the centrality of race in American politics that African-Americans embraced him as one of “theirs”, even as growing numbers of white Americans began accepting him as the embodiment of the post-racial black politician. This led some optimists to predict – prematurely, it has turned out – that the country had finally entered a social and political universe transcending those harsher, older, simpler racial divisions.

When this writer asked African-American friends in the US (and others living in South Africa) whether they thought race was no longer much of a factor in American politics, the snorts of derision were overwhelming. One US-based friend wrote back, “It is obviously hard to tell what is in people’s minds on race in the United States, but those who recognize how critical the issue always is, still try. I strongly believe, even in this age of Obama, that most of white America gives the issue no intellectually honest thought. When pressured, they lie. That is part of the shame of our slave legacy. In this country, people deliberately mislead pollsters on race and this gives conservative planners like (Karl) Rove the space to operate.” 

Coincidentally, a column in the Financial Times by novelist Adam Haslett spoke to this set of fears.

“Through the 1950s, the electorate could still accurately be pictured as a collection of white nuclear families,” Haslett argued. “‘The American ideal, after all,’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.’ That fiction is what undergirded Social Security and progressive tax rates. The governing consensus relied on the implicit assumption by whites that redistributed wealth flowed to people like their neighbours, or their neighbours’ slightly poorer cousins. But the civil rights movement, as it came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s, changed all that. With the increase in black voters, the eruption of race riots and school desegregation, the American public sphere went from an imaginary white to an imaginary black…. And they elected Richard Nixon twice to represent a new ‘silent majority’ on a platform of law and order, still one of the most effective racial codes in American politics.” 

“Seen against this backdrop, the modern Republican Party’s intractable opposition to Federal taxation comes into focus…. it makes perfect sense as an expression of deep animosity towards the idea of a shared national life. An animosity his [Romney’s] ‘47 per cent’ comments make crystal clear…. He is the ultimate symbol of a changed order, and that is enough. A substantial majority of white Americans voted against him in 2008 and a majority are set to vote against him again in November.”

While polling data is increasingly consistent that Obama is leading Mitt Romney by still-small, but growing, margins nationally and especially in crucial battleground states like Ohio and Virginia, in a race this close voters will be forced to make a final binary choice. In such circumstances, the Obama margin might well shrink back. Will any such shrinkage in support occur as some of those presumably “angry minds” ultimately turn away from Obama on racial grounds – unrelated to policy issues – now that Obama is simply another black politician and no longer avatar of a post-racial political landscape?

In such circumstances, will Obama’s support bleed away a few critical percentage points by virtue of the influence of the Bradley effect? This effect is named after Tom Bradley, the former black mayor of Los Angeles who famously, and totally unexpectedly, lost his race for the California governorship in 1982 to George Deukmejian, despite the fact Bradley had been leading in the polls right up to Election Day.

A recent, cleverly constructed sociology experiment has attempted to measure how such race-based voting behaviour can exist, even unconsciously, and how opinions about topics unrelated to race are thereby subtly influenced by a racial context. Sociology experiments about actual behaviour are notoriously hard to construct. Setting up blind testing and control groups without tipping the hand of the experimenter or subliminally influencing the test subjects can be difficult, but this experiment seems to have managed to circumvent the obvious pitfalls.  

Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler had been examining national polling data after Obama’s switch over gay marriage. He found that not only was Obama’s newfound support pulling blacks toward his position, but it was also driving some whites away from the new position. Tesler argued Obama had such impact over racially conscious voters they adjusted their positions on gay marriage because of him. Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen explained that, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.”

While Tesler has been examining this “racialization” of issues in the Obama era, UCLA psychologist David Sears had earlier pointed to the way negative racial attitudes bled over into other issues. In Sears’ work, he had looked at how some voters came to be less favourably disposed towards the Democratic Party simply because civil rights activist Jesse Jackson had tried to gain the party’s nomination for the presidency. 

In their 2010 book, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America, Sears and Tesler argued that at the beginning of the Obama administration, surveys were already finding evidence for this behaviour. Pew Research Center data showed a 70% gap in Obama’s approval between “strong racial liberals” and “strong racial conservatives”. “Perhaps the profound racial hopes and fears embodied by our first African-American president have made racial attitudes simply more accessible than they were for local black politicians who did not symbolize such sweeping racial changes,” they wrote.

When Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Tesler had a way to test his ideas. CNN had carried out a poll concerning Sotomayor’s pending nomination, but it split its sample between two different ways of asking the question. One mentioned Obama having nominated Sotomayor, but the other made no specific reference to Obama. Because the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for breaking into his own house was also in the news at the time, CNN also asked about police discrimination against African-Americans. Drawing upon the two surveys, it turned out that respondent views on discrimination were three times more influential on a respondent’s support for Sotomayor among those who had heard Obama’s name connected to Sotomayor compared to those who had not.

Tesler then looked at “issues that people don’t have strong feelings about, and issues that weren’t already folded into the current partisan alignment”. He worked with the YouGov polling organization to match how voters’ views on various issues lined up with responses to measures of racial-resentment. Voters who had heard descriptions of the components of the 1993 Clinton and 2009 Obama health reform proposals were more likely to become disapproving of Obama’s plans, once they heard the names of the respective presidents associated with the plans, but only so long as they had given evidence of racial resentment elsewhere in the survey. 

But the real clincher in Tesler’s work came in voters’ responses to Bo, that Portuguese Water Dog that was Obama’s gift to his children after he was elected president. Tesler showed 1,000 YouGov respondents a picture of a Portuguese Water Dog and asked how they felt about the dog. (Presumably all feline lovers and dog haters were excluded from the sample, and presumably nobody was asked about that poor Romney setter, Shamus, that had been strapped to the car roof on a family vacation.) Half of Tesler’s respondents had the dog introduced to them as Bo, the Obama’s dog, and the other half as Ted Kennedy’s dog, Splash. Both pets are the same breed, but the actual picture used for all was Bo’s. Amazingly, those with those subliminal racial resentment triggers thought measurably less of Obama’s dog. Same dog, same picture, though.

America now seems well past the moment when Barack Obama was a bright harbinger of a post-racial society. And so, for some voters this time around, the most salient aspect of Obama’s presidency may now be his race. If those voters have those racial resentment triggers, and if the race between Romney and Obama ultimately draws closer by Election Day, will the Bradley effect come into play when voters must cast their ballots? 

Washington Post columnist Colbert King wrote the other day about research on Facebook postings by virulent Obama opponents that was tapping into political opposition influenced and animated by veins of deep racial animosity, disparaging stereotypes and even incitements to violence. Colbert wrote, “Credit R Wallace ‘Wally’ Hudson, chairman of the Mecklenburg County (Va.) Republican Committee, with demonstrating how new social media platforms can broadcast ancient hates…. (That) county GOP’s Facebook page had displayed for months photos portraying President Obama as a witch doctor, a caveman and a drug dealer.”

Other observers note, of course, that an additional element in Republican Party strategy – one not consciously racially defined, but similar in effect – has been efforts to restrict access to voter registration to minorities and the poor. The Economist recently noted, “The greater challenge to black turnout comes not from apathy, but from the host of voter-ID and voter-registration laws enacted since 2010 that have the effect – and arguably the intent – of making it more difficult for black Americans to vote. Courts have rejected some of them (notably the Texas voter-ID law), but plenty remain. Small wonder that many black Americans are entering the election’s home stretch peeved that Republicans seem to have given up trying to persuade them, and have resorted instead to trying to keep them away from the polls.”

Drew Westen added more pointedly still, “Keeping people from voting because of the colour of their skin isn’t ‘fair game’ in politics. It’s crossing a moral line. It’s un-American. And it is part of a consistent, organized pattern of Republican activity since the 1960s.”

The question that still remains unanswered, of course, is whether voters will ultimately make their choice based upon the policies and character of the two candidates, or on deeper, more subliminal appeals to race and religion. Although that would be unfortunate, perhaps it is also behaviour that has some very deep roots in the American experience. DM

Read more: 

  • “Obama best look for variation in ‘Bradley effect’,” on Politico
  • “It All Comes Down to Race,” on Slate
  • “Barack Obama and black voters: Returning to the Mountaintop,” on the Economist

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama greets supporters in an election campaign rally in Virginia Beach, September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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