Can Obama or Clinton Win a Presidential Election?

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.

Segregation and Racism in Jena, Louisiana

Imagine a small Louisiana town with about three-thousand residents, of which some 12 percent are black. This is Jena, Louisiana, a town located in LaSalle parish.  This well-known racist environment, where African Americans have found their daily lives being riddled with racist events, has finally received national attention. In this case, the focus is on events that showcase the long-standing inequality in the U.S. justice system. The officially enforced norms of the old segregation system are not dead.
Mychal Bell, 16, the last of the six black students still in jail for assaulting a white student, will request to be released on bail after his conviction was overturned late last week.  On Friday September 14, 2007, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mychal Bell’s felony conviction of aggravated battery, saying that the charge should have been handled in juvenile court.  LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters says that he will appeal. Initially, six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder; the charges have since been reduced for four of the six students to aggravated second degree battery.

To understand the charges faced by these Black teenagers, we have to examine how and why this started.  This began a year ago in September 2006 when an African American freshman asked the principal of his high school if he could sit under a shade tree on the school grounds during the day.  What this new student did not know is that this tree is known at school to be the “white tree.”  The principal told the student that he could sit anywhere he liked.  The day after the African American student sat under this particular tree three nooses were found hanging from it. 

Many in the Black community called for the expulsion of the three white students proven responsible for the act, but white authorities deemed the act an innocent prank.  For this prank, the students received only in-school suspension.  As a reply, the day after the nooses were hung, black athletes and other students organized a silent protest under the same “white tree” to show dissatisfaction with nooses and the mild in-school suspensions.
Later, the police and district attorney were called to an assembly taking place at the school.  At this assembly, the old segregated South was in evidence as Black students sat on one side while whites sat on the other.  At one point, the district attorney, Reed Walters, lifted his pen and said, “I can be your friend or your worst enemy.  With one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, someone set fire to the school, and this crime is still unsolved.  The following day, a few black students tried to attend a party hosted and attended by whites.  While at this party, 16 year old Robert Bailey, a black student and one of the defendants, was attacked and beaten.
The next day after the party, another highly charged racial event took place.  According to news reports, at a local convenience store, Bailey was approached by a white student from the party, and harsh words were exchanged.  The white boy ran to his truck and pulled a loaded shotgun on Bailey and his friends.  Bailey wrestled the gun away from him.  Bailey and friends ran home, with the gun and eventually police got involved.  Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, robbery, and disturbing the peace.  The white student was not charged.

The following Monday, December 4, a white student took the news of the party fight back to school and loudly taunted blacks by saying that a black boy was “whipped” by white boys.  When he walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by several black students.  He was punched and kicked and taken to a hospital. His injuries were reported to be superficial; he was treated and released and attended a class ceremony that evening.  Six black students were charged with aggravated assault, but the district attorney increased the charges to second-degree attempted murder. This aggressive act provoked a wave of black protest.
The previous incidents in which whites attacked Black students were treated as school fights. Why were the actions of the young Black students not treated the same way?
Bell was the first to go to trial.  On the morning of the trial, the district attorney reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy.  (In this case, the students’ tennis shoes are apparently considered a dangerous weapon.) Bell’s public defender did not call any witnesses on his behalf, and he was found guilty by an all-white jury.
Notice the key event here: A white protest using nooses against white space being occupied by a Black student. Whites, especially young white men, still make much use of hangman’s nooses, the N-word epithet, and other symbols of the extreme racial oppression of legal segregation era. Some use these symbols intentionally while others do not realize why they cause so much pain and anger for  African Americans. In an important book of interviews with middle-class African Americans, Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes report that an experienced African American psychologist explained to them that when he encounters a old symbol of racial oppression, such as the N-word epithet, he often sees in the back of his mind a black man hanging from a tree. He grew up during legal segregation era when lynchings of Black people were more common than today. Not surprisingly, thus, Blacks’ past experiences with discrimination inform and contextualize their interpretations of present racist events. In contrast, the impact of racist events such as hanging nooses and yelling racist epithets may well be underestimated by naïve or venal whites, as well as by other non-Black observers.
Notice in the Jena events too that some whites signaled to the African American community that the symbols of bloody lynchings were not very serious, and should be quickly forgotten. Indeed, the psychologist cited above indicated in his interview that his white friends will sometimes tell him to just “let go” of racist comments and events and “move on.” Many whites seem to believe that such insults are “trivial” or “innocent” and thus do not hurt or cause psychological damage. They are, the data makes clear, quite wrong. Such a white perspective suggests that its advocates have not been the recipients of regular put-downs and routine questioning of one’s worth.

~ Louwanda Evans and Joe Feagin

Color-Blindness and the Color of Inequality

In a recent talk at Emory University, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Professor of Sociology at Duke University, raised two questions: “Why do we have such a high level of racial inequality in a country where ‘racism’ is presumably a thing of the past? How do whites explain the contradiction between their professed color-blindness and the color of inequality?”

Writing for the campus paper, Se Hwan Youn summarizes Bonilla-Silva’s main arguments like this:

The professor argued that whites use four central rationalizations, or “frames,” to deny the racism that remains in American social, political and economic systems. The four frames, he said, are abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism and minimization of racism.

Reiterating his claim from his book Racism without Racists, Bonilla-Silva said abstract liberalism “can make whites appear moral and reasonable because they appeal to ideas associated with political liberalism, such as equal opportunity.”

Naturalization is “a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences,” Bonilla-Silva said. He said whites justify associating primarily other whites by arguing that racial minorities also tend to self-segregate — in other words, “lack of mixing is really just kind of lack of desire.”

He said cultural racism is the most widespread frame. It relies on stereotypical arguments to explain the low social standing of minorities, such as “blacks eat too much” or “Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education,” he said.

For the final frame, minimization of racism, people insist that there are few racists and they are hard to find, so racism is not widespread.

Minimization of racism is also associated with people’s hesitance to openly discuss racism in public, Bonilla-Silva said. He gave an example of an interview with a white person who said minorities use racism as an excuse “if things didn’t go their way,” and that whites suffer from reverse discrimination.

Other examples taken from his interviews with many white people showed similar responses, Bonilla-Silva said, which indicates many whites’ firm belief that blacks are playing “race cards” to gain preferential treatment.

Bonilla-Silva concluded the lecture by suggesting “five things we [minorities] ought to do,” including developing counter-arguments for the four frames and starting a new civil rights movement to demand true equality immediately.

I couldn’t agree more about the need for a new civil rights movement.