Monday, May 19, 2008

Barack Obama and the Political Psychology of Race

John Judis has a great new piece on the political psychology of racial resentment, as it relates to Barack Obama's presidential bid, at the New Republic:

Barack's Color Line

The issue of race is the longest-lasting cleavage in American politics. It is also perhaps the least understood. The open exploitation of racist sentiment by vote-hungry politicians was for centuries a durable American tradition. More recently, race has assumed a subtle, often unspoken form during campaign season, as Republicans have sought white votes by slyly associating their Democratic opponents with controversial black figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, or with topics--welfare, crime, federal funding for "midnight basketball"--that many voters identify with African Americans.

Now, with Barack Obama inching closer to the Democratic nomination, race looms yet again as a central factor in American politics. Already, race has played a key part in the Democratic primary, almost certainly hurting Obama among swaths of voters in states like New Jersey, Ohio, and, most recently, Pennsylvania. If he manages to win the nomination anyway--and it appears he will--race seems likely to play an even larger role in the general election.

What role, exactly, will that be? No one knows for sure, but the field of political psychology offers some clues. In recent years, scholars have been combining experimental findings with survey data to explain how race has remained a factor in American elections--even when politicians earnestly deny that it plays any part at all. In 2001, Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg summarized this research in a pathbreaking book, The Race Card. Her provocative analysis is hotly debated and far from conclusive; political psychology, after all, is not a hard science. Still, her ideas and those of other academics help to shed light on what has happened so far in the primaries and what might unfold once Obama wraps up the nomination. Their findings suggest that racism remains deeply embedded within the psyche of the American electorate--so deep that many voters may not even be aware of their own feelings on the subject. Yet, while political psychology offers a sobering sense of the difficulties that lie ahead for Obama, it also offers something else: lessons for how the country's first viable black presidential candidate might overcome the obstacles he faces.
Judis writes from the left of the spectrum, but he's even-handed.

I studied racial politics and psychology in some detail in the 1990s (prior to teaching an upper-division course on Black Politics).

I'm a conservative on these issues, but I never underestimate lingering racial bigotry in the country.

I may have mentioned previously that I pumped gas at the local Chevron station when I was at Fresno State (a great job, frankly, for the study time, even if it didn't pay well). When I moved to Santa Barbara I worked for a time at the Chevron filling station downtown, on the weekends, for less than a year while I started my graduate program.

I'll never forget one Saturday morning in Santa Barbara, when my boss - the owner - was working around the station with a couple of his handymen, and three stereotypical poor black women drove up in a really old, beat-up station-wagon. They looked like prostitutes: Lots of makeup, loose, low-cut blouses, with long fingernails and smoking cigarettes. They were lost and asked to see a city map. The boss helped them to a map posted at the window, and they lingered a little before heading down the road, the exhaust spewing out the back of their thrasher of a wagon. I stood near the boss and his buddies while they watched the women drive off. They were laughing, and the boss says, "I love black women. I wish we could still own a few." The other two guys thought this was the funniest thing since blackface, and they were all slapping themselves on their knees in hilarity.

I couldn't help thinking how damned stupid these men were, frankly, given
my own background. I wondered if they had any clue as to issues of, say, the politics of "high yellow" racial mixing! I walked away, and talked it over with my wife (then fiancee) later that day. We agreed, you're always going to have some ignorant crackers, but views like these - in my own experience - are an extreme minority. That's not to say that bigotry and discrimination are not a prolbem, or that they're unhurtful. But as a long-time student who worked his way up from community college to a Ph.D. from the University of California, I can attest personally to how committed are those in the educational system to upward racial mobility. In industry, sure, we see lingering patterns of discrimination, but affirmative outreach programs in the corporate sector are extremely advanced, the norm even. It's too bad, really, that we now often focus on racial access to the exclusion of excellence (with some added racial hate-mongering, but more on that in later posts).

As for racial resentment in politics today, I'm thinking back to one of the readings I assigned when I taught my class back in 1999: Earl Black and Merle Black, Politics and Society in the South. The book's a classic in the study of black politics and civil rights. Black and Black offer a very perceptive model of progressive racial intergration, operationalized as black movement through three "belts" of the traditional white society "color line":

Black Americans have confronted massive discrimination in each of three broad categories. Controversies in the outer color line have concerned the "segregated position of Negroes in the public arena"; disputes in the intermediate color line have focused on "economic subordination and opportunity restriction"; and tensions in the innermost ring have involved white acceptance of blacks in intimate friendships and private associations.
Black and Black draw here on the research of Herbert Blumer, and his early essay, "The Future of the Color Line," which is discussed more recently in Lawrence Bobo's research essay, "Prejudice as Group Position: Microfoundations of a Sociological Approach to Racism and Race Relations."

In election '08, Americans - who this week in the Democratic primaries are
turning out to see Barack Obama in record numbers - are close to breaking the highest barrier to the outer ring of blacks in the political system, if Obama's elected in November. Moreover, blacks have made incredible strides in all sectors of the American economy since the civil rights movement, so much so that the most important but under-discussed fact of black life in America today is the expansive black American middle class.

Even on the "innermost ring" of the color line, blacks today are integrating into "intimate friendships" as never before, and
public opinion is more open to the interracial marriages than at any time in American history.

As I've noted before, one of the great benefits of Obama's presidential campaign is that it provides the country the greatest opportunity in the post-civil rights era to really openly discuss race, and for Americans to vote their greatest hopes and fears concerning the nation's most longstanding division.

More research will sort out the fine points of this year's voting patterns, but Judis notes that economic class - not racial animus - is most likely the biggest impediment to electing a black president this year:

What, then, can the political psychology of race tell us about the current primaries and the coming general election...?

One indication is the exit polls. The percentage of voters who backed Hillary Clinton (or, earlier, John Edwards) while saying that the "race of the candidates" was "important" in deciding their vote is a fair proxy for the percentage of primary voters who were disinclined to support Obama because he is black. That number topped 9 percent in New Jersey; in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two crucial swing states, it was more than 11 percent. And that's among Democratic primary voters, who are, on average, more liberal than the Democrats who vote in general elections.

Obama's connection with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which exploded into the news after the Ohio primary, may do lasting damage to his candidacy by undermining his attempt to transcend race. Wright's words tie Obama to the stereotype of the angry, hostile--and also unpatriotic--black who is seen as hating both whites and white America. Wright turns Obama into a "black candidate" like Jackson or Sharpton. And, as a black candidate, Obama falls prey to a set of stereotypes about black politicians.

Some of these have to do with abilities. A 1995 study found that voters believe black politicians "lack competence on major issues." Other stereotypes relate to ideology. Several studies have shown that if subjects compare a black and white candidate with roughly equal political positions, they will nevertheless see the black candidate as more liberal. Obama is already vulnerable to charges of inexperience, and, after Wright surfaced, he fell prey to an ideological stereotype as well. Whereas he benefited in the initial primaries and caucuses from being seen as middleof-the-road or even conservative, his strongest support has recently come from more liberal voters. In Pennsylvania, he defeated Clinton among voters who classified themselves as "very liberal" by 55 to 45 percent, but he lost "somewhat conservative" voters by 53 to 47 percent and moderates by 60 to 40 percent. In a national Pew poll, Obama's support among "very liberal" voters jumped seven points between January and May, while his support among "moderates" dropped by two points....

If Obama wins the Democratic nomination, he should be able to inherit the white women who backed Hillary Clinton. As political psychologists have shown, these voters should be largely amenable to his candidacy. He should also continue to enjoy an advantage among white professionals. But Obama is likely to continue having trouble with white working-class voters in the Midwest--voters who tend to score high on racial resentment and implicit association tests and who, arguably, decided the 2004 election with their votes in Ohio.
So, there is some racial resentment there, but overall, given the cult-like phenomenon that's already emerged around the Illinois Senator, the question's not likely whether the country's ready to elect a black president. The question is whether people want this black man.

The fall campaign will put that question to the test.

More later!