Will Racism Prevent White Americans from Voting for Barack Obama?, Part 1.

Two recent articles have raised the mega-question concerning this year’s election: will racism be a decisive factor in determining who becomes president?

Jacob Weisberg, writing online for Slate, says in his article If Obama Loses: Racism is the Only Reason McCain Might Beat Him:

Much evidence points to racial prejudice as a factor that could be large enough to cost Obama the election. That warning is written all over last month’s CBS/New York Times poll, which is worth examining in detail if you want a quick grasp of white America’s curious sense of racial grievance. In the poll,
• 26 percent of whites say they have been victims of discrimination.
• 27 percent say too much has been made of the problems facing black people.
• 24 percent say the country isn’t ready to elect a black president.
• 5 percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate.

Five percent surely understates the reality. In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton. You can do the math: 12 percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn’t vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that’s what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly. The responses in Ohio and even New Jersey were dispiritingly similar.

Such prejudice usually comes coded in distortions about Obama and his background. To the willfully ignorant, he is a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thank you, Geraldine Ferraro—he only got where he is because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel in the way they assume other black politicians to be.

To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an “elitist” who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn’t one of them. Or he is charged with playing the race card, or of accusing his opponents of racism, when he has strenuously avoided doing anything of the sort. We’re just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.

The full article, as well as the CBS/New York Times poll, are required reading.

Dick Polman, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, echoed Weisberg’s concern in another “required reading” piece titled The American Debate: It’s little discussed, but Obama’s race may be decider:

Let us swing the door ajar and invite the elephant into the room. One big reason Barack Obama is locked in a tight race, rather than easily outdistancing his opponent, is because he is black.

That factor is rarely discussed in polite political conversation. People tend to dance around it, talking instead about Obama’s perceived inexperience, or his youth, or his perceived airs, or his liberal voting record. And racist sentiment rarely shows up in the polls, because a lot of people don’t want to share their baser instincts with the pollsters; they’ll save that instead for the privacy of the voting booth.

But the incremental evidence – anecdotal and even statistical – has become impossible to ignore.

Union organizers in the key state of Michigan complain in the press that, as one puts it, “we’re all struggling to some extent with the problem of white workers who will not vote for Obama because of his color.” An aging mine electrician from Kentucky is quoted as saying, “I won’t vote for a colored man. He’ll put too many coloreds in jobs.” An elderly woman in a New Jersey hair salon is overheard complaining about Barack and Michelle Obama the other day, about how blacks supposedly have larger bones than whites, and about how she’s fleeing America if Obama wins.

Here’s one hint. Last June, the Washington Post-ABC News poll devised a “racial sensitivity index,” based on a series of nuanced questions that were designed to measure the varying levels of racial prejudice in the white electorate. The pollsters came up with three categories, ranging from most to least enlightened. The key finding: Whites in the least-enlightened category – roughly 30 percent of the white electorate – favored John McCain over Obama by a ratio of 2-1.

A few prominent Democrats did broach this sensitive topic at the Denver convention. Dee Dee Myers, the former Bill Clinton aide, shared her concerns at one political forum, and with good reason. She worked for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1980s, when it appeared that Bradley was a cinch to win his U.S. Senate contest despite his race. The final round of polls showed him winning comfortably. He lost.

“I lived through that,” Myers said. “We’re whistling past the graveyard if we think that race was not a factor in the Democratic primaries. Today’s young voters will get us past these attitudes,” but it will take time. As for millions of older voters, “they talk about having ‘culture’ problems [with Obama], but to separate culture from race is impossible.”

But clearly Obama needs to tread carefully, arguably by stressing lunch-pail economic issues and continuing to present himself as a “post-racial” candidate. He will need to dispel these white suspicions, if only because whites will continue to dominate the electorate – they constituted 77 percent of all voters in 2004 – even if he manages to inspire an historic black turnout. He has to bond somehow with blue-collar whites, yet he cannot show too much passion, because, as Democratic strategist Joe Trippi explained to me, “those whites don’t like to see a black guy getting angry, it’s a dangerous thing for an African American candidate to do.”

So… what do I think are Obama’s chances of winning the election? I believe that unfortunately Obama is 20 years ahead of his time.

Today’s voting public includes a large share of pre-baby boomers (born before 1946; anyone who is over 62 years old) and baby boomers (born 1946-64; people who are 44-62 years old). These are what I call the last two “Jim Crow” generations: they were born before the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those two laws capped off a decade of federal legislative and judicial activity which outlawed racial discrimination. For those who lived during the days of separate and equal, race is going to be a factor, consciously or unconsciously, of their world view and the way they vote.

Voters born after 1964 – Generation X (born 1964-82) and Generation Y/Millennials (born after 1982) – are part of what I call the “Post Jim Crow” generations. These are the folks who never saw a “For Coloreds Only” sign” during their lifetime. They’ve always seen African Americans in prominent positions in sports or entrtainment; like everyone, they loved Michael. They might have grown up listening to hip-hop music. They might have lived in a city with a black mayor. And most importantly, they’ve worked comfortably alongside the huge group of black workers and professionals who’ve entered the workplace in the past 30 years. For them, race is not the overriding issue that it was for the generations before them.

I feel that if Obama were running this campaign in 2028, instead of 2008, he’d have a much much better chance of winning. By then, the older parts of the Jim Crow generations would have literally died out, and the Post Jim Crow generations would be a larger part of the electorate. Under those conditions, Obama could compete in a fair fight, where his record, and not his race, would determine how he is viewed.

But I don’t think it’s a fair fight today.

In response to this, I’ve heard some say that “Obama will gain as many votes from being black as he will lose for being black.” That is a very dubious argument at best, and I will look at that subject in a later post.

But suffice it to say for now: racism does loom large as a factor in this election. The ability of Obama and his campaign to deal with that is one of the compelling stories of this election, and perhaps, of all elections in this nation’s history.

See also: Will Racism Prevent White Americans from Voting for Barack Obama?, Part 2: WSJ Doesn’t Think So; Republicans Do.

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