Monday, August 4, 2008

Obama Sees Traction in Continuing Racial Grievance

Election 2008 may be remembered for an odd counter-intuition on racial progress: For the first time in history, a black American has secured a major-party nomination for the presidency. This milestone should demonstrate America's equal political opportunity for people of color. Yet, simultaneously, the very ascendence of a black presidential nominee is forcing people to confront latent racial prejudices that seemed slowly fading as the pattern of post-civil rights integration normalized cross-racial comity and interaction.

Is Barack Obama to blame for the fraying of the integrationist consensus?

A man who advertised himself as America's postracial healer now appears to be complicit in the resegregation of American attitudes on skin color and the politics of racial recrimination.

Gallup polling, for example, finds a majority of Americans agreeing racism is widespread:

Racial Attitudes

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll finds most Americans saying racism is widespread against blacks in the United States. This includes a slim majority of whites (51%), a slightly higher 59% of Hispanics, and the vast majority of blacks (78%)....

As on most issues involving race in the United States, blacks are much more likely to see racism as a problem than are whites. However, other questions in the poll showed that Americans remain optimistic that race relations could improve, if Americans could hold an open national dialogue on race and
if Barack Obama were elected as the first black president.
Notice how black Americans are much more likely to view politics through a racial prism.

today's Washington Post poll finds Barack Obama running strong overwhelmingly among narrow interest group constituencies sensitive to race-baiting appeals:

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama holds a 2 to 1 edge over Republican Sen. John McCain among the nation's low-wage workers, but many are unconvinced that either presidential candidate would be better than the other at fixing the ailing economy or improving the health-care system, according to a new national poll.

Obama's advantage is attributable largely to overwhelming support from two traditional Democratic constituencies: African Americans and Hispanics...

Obama's standing with the white workers runs counter to an impression, dating from the primary season, that he struggles to attract support from that group. McCain advisers have said for months that they think the Republican can win a significant share of those voters because of Obama's performance in the spring.

The survey suggests it will be difficult, but not impossible, for McCain to increase his appeal.
Think about this: The Post's survey contacted people making at or below $27,000 annually - that is, the working classes. So, we are seeing lower-income whites who are favorable to the Obama campaign, but also, in Gallup's findings, only a slight majority of white Americans see society as racist.

In other words, the Obama campaign has an incentive to push racial politics as a wedge issue.

Black voters already cling to outdating notions of hegemomic racist domination of the political landscape. If Obama can sharpen racist thinking among white voters, by alleging that John McCain is exploiting racist stereotypical images of sexual predation among blacks, perhaps more white voters - who are more inclined toward electoral color-blindness, but may have debilitating white guilt - can be sucked into the frame of a racial recriminatory coalition: McCain's racist! Vote Obama!

Thus, strangely, Barack Obama has in fact no incentive to campaign on a post-civil rights platform of equality of opportunity. Indeed,
Juan Williams notes that last week's outbursts might just be the beginning of racial general election campaign:

With polls showing the presidential contest between John McCain and Barack Obama getting closer, a question is now looming larger and larger. Is skin color going to be the deciding factor?

Just last week, Sen. Obama warned voters that Sen. McCain's campaign will exploit the race issue by telling voters that "he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." A few weeks earlier, he said they will attack his lack of experience but also added, "And did I mention he's black?"

The McCain campaign did not counter the first punch, but after last week's jab -- fearing that Mr. Obama was getting away with calling his candidate a racist -- campaign manager Rick Davis responded to the dollar-bill attack by saying, "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

Mr. Obama's campaign concedes it has no clear example of a Republican attack that expressly cites Mr. Obama's name or race. Yet in the last few days some Obama supporters were at it again, suggesting that a McCain ad attacking Mr. Obama as little more than a "celebrity," by featuring young white women such as Britney Spears, is an appeal to white anxiety about black men and white women.

The race issue is clearly not going away.
Williams suggest that the Bradley effect may be at work, with many white voters not revealing their genuine racial sensitivties to pollsters. Therefore, Williams notes that instead of continuing crass racial appeals to further divide the electorate, Obama needs to return to his original promise of racial transcendence:

To win this campaign, Mr. Obama needs to assure undecided white voters that he shares their values and is worthy of their trust. To do that he has to minimize attention to different racial attitudes toward his candidacy as well as racially polarizing issues, and appeal to the common experiences that bind Americans regardless of color.
Obama conceded last Friday that his "dollar bill" remark sought to play the race card. Hopefully, Obama will go further and fully repudiate the politics of racial demonization.

Polls show that Americans see race discrimination as continuing, and the odd implication for the Democrats is that they can score political points by further exacerbating those racial tensions that do exist.

Maybe America will one day have a campaign judging presidential candidates by the content of their character, but it won't be Barack Obama's presidential bid that helps us get there.

See also, Betsy Newmark, "It Always Seems to Come Down to Racism."

Graphic Credit: Gallup Poll