Many mainstream media analysts and web analysts of various political persuasions have focused on the virtues and liabilities of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the talented and pioneering Democratic Party candidates for president. The election of either would be a major breakthrough in U.S. politics. Among other things, these breakthroughs would be against an array of stereotypes and understandings that make up major racist and sexist frames still held in the minds of many in this society.
Yet, however much many analysts seem to think that their election is possible or probable, they need to do some tough reality checking. The racist and sexist framing of this society is still extremely strong and mostly unchallenged in a great many minds of likely voters. Yet, the mainstream media seem to tiptoe around these obvious issues of old racist and sexist frames, especially as they affect electability.
The reason for this seems to be the naïve but common notion that somehow we as a country are “beyond racism and sexism.” (Indeed, even if they lose in electoral attempts, mainstream explanations will not note widespread racist and sexist thinking as the reasons, but rather something like Obama’s political inexperience or Clinton’s alleged flip-flopping.)
The data are reasonably clear on public resistance because of race and gender. For example, in December 2006 a national Newsweek Poll of registered voters found that 14 percent would not vote for a “qualified” woman for president or were unsure, with 7 percent indicating they would not vote for a “qualified” black candidate for president or were unsure.
In the same poll 30 percent of registered voters thought the country was not ready for a Black president, with 35 percent saying the same for a possible woman president. Fourteen percent more were unsure in the case of a woman president (for a total of 44 percent), with 10 percent unsure for a black candidate (for a total of 45 percent). . Fourteen percent more were unsure in the case of a woman president (for a total of 44 percent), with 10 percent unsure for a black candidate (for a total of 45 percent). Similarly, in January 2007, a national CBS News Poll asked adult respondents if the country was ready to elect a Black president (42 percent said no or unsure) or a female president (43 percent said no or unsure).
Given that many survey respondents speaking to a stranger on the phone are likely to try to sound unprejudiced in racial or gender terms (the social desirability response), these latter percentages of people saying the country is not “ready” for a Black or female president may well be closer to the actual percentages of voters who will not vote for such candidates once in the voting booth. Having done considerable research on racial and gender issues with hundreds of U.S. respondents, my educated but speculative guess is that the actual percentages would be in-between those for the direct questions and those for the general-readiness questions. (For research data on the high levels of antiblack racism expressed by whites among friends and relatives, see Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin, Two Faced Racism, 2007). That is, they would be very substantial.
Of course, we cannot be sure what these voters might do in an actual election, after there is intense discussion and debate and the candidates are well presented to the voters, but the great depths of racist and sexist framing in this country make it likely that both Obama and Clinton would get a lot of voters voting against them just because of the racial or gender characteristics.
Some might counter a pessimistic view of their electability chances with the argument that both Senators have already been elected, and have garnered votes from those who might have been expected to vote against them. Both have done well in statewide elections. However, they have both been elected in very blue states where the Republican opponents have not been particularly strong and where a minority of counter-voters could not make the critical difference. If the Republicans run a reasonably strong candidate in a national election, the movement (especially in key states) of just 2-8 percent (possibly much more) of the registered voters from a Democratic candidate to Republican candidate because of their deeplying racist or sexist frames might guarantee the Republican victory.
It is great political news that such candidates are being seriously considered in the United States, but given the power of continuing racist and sexist frames, and the continuing failure of U.S. political and educational systems to counter these frames in strong and systematic ways, the likelihood that a black or female candidate can be elected in a national election is very, very low.
Better news can come in the future, but only if we as a nation work aggressively to change such results by deciding to disrupt and break down the dominant racist and sexist framing once and for all. Of course, this is a huge moral, educational, and political challenge, but since we human beings made these oppressive frames, we human beings can also undo them.